“The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” Psalm 23 is probably the most recognizable of the Psalms, and definitely the most popular. It's easy to see why, as the Psalm evokes a very peaceful scene of a beautiful, grass covered landscape with sheep peacefully grazing and a shepherd calmly watching over his flock.
Today, on this Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season, we celebrate what is commonly known as Good Shepherd Sunday. In addition, this Sunday is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It's no coincidence that we celebrate both on the same day, as the two are intrinsically linked. Our understanding of Christ as the Good Shepherd influences our understanding of religious vocations.
In the passages we just heard, we see Christ symbolized as a Good Shepherd, who leads, protects, and guides his flock. As Christians, we are members of this flock. I once heard someone say that it was an insult to be called sheep, as sheep are usually portrayed as slow, stupid creatures that follow their shepherd blindly. This isn't the case, however, as sheep are actually quite intelligent, as far as animals go. As the Gospel tells us, they can recognize the voice of their shepherd and follow him, while shying away from those whose voices they don't recognize.
In our world today, many voices try to draw us away from the Good Shepherd. Popular media, such as movies, television shows, and music, try to draw us one way. News channels and programs bring another call. Even the day-to-day demands of life provide an alternative message. Through all this noise, how can we hear the voice of our Good Shepherd calling us to him?
To help us to follow him, we have the Church, which is symbolized as a sheepfold, a fenced-in pen used for protection of the flock. The sheepfolds were used by shepherds to corral the sheep every evening so that they wouldn't wander away while the shepherd slept, but it also protected the sheep from predators and those who would try to steal the sheep from the shepherd. The teaching office of the Church, the Magisterium, keeps us from wandering away from Jesus and falling into error, but is also called to protect us from those who would cause our spiritual lives harm.
Christ has also given us earthly shepherds to lead and guide us to him. Bishops and priests are members of the Church called to act on Jesus' behalf. In fact, when the Pope visits the United States next week, his aircraft will be known as “Shepherd 1”, a recognition of his role as earthly shepherd serving the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
All of us have a vocation that we're called to. For most Christians, indeed the great majority of Christians, the call is to live in the world, whether in the married or single state. This is a highly important vocation, and should not be minimized by anyone. Some men and women are called to enter into a religious vocation, giving up everything to spend their lives working and praying for the coming of the Kingdom. Other men, such as myself, are called to enter the ministerial priesthood, serving the Lord and his people by preaching the word of God, administering the sacraments, and reaching out to those in need.
In the United States, there is a concern within the Church regarding the number of vocations. Many diocese, my own included, are either facing a priest shortage, or will be soon. Many religious orders are also having problems with lack of potential vocations. How do we overcome this problem? First, we must pray for those who are in a religious vocation, those who are discerning a religious vocation, and those who may be called, but haven't answered yet. Second, we must be willing to ask if a young man has considered the priesthood, or if a young man or woman has considered religious life. Chicago's Called by Name program is an excellent opportunity for this. In my own life, I had someone tell me three times (not ask, mind you, but tell me) that I was going to be a priest. At first, I said no, but her words came back to me several years later. Without that seed being planted, I may never have considered entering the seminary.
Today, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, let us pray for those men and women discerning their vocations, and let us also pray that more young men and women may hear the call of the Good Shepherd and answer willingly.