Forty-four years ago on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the day after my ordination to the diaconate, I preached my first homily at my home parish in the San Fernando Valley. After seven years of seminary formation my longed for and hoped for goal of finally becoming a priest was in sight. Preparation in the seminary to eventually preach the word, begins early on in seminary formation. In my seminary college days we were given yearly courses in public speaking with a particular emphasis on properly and effectively proclaiming the Scriptures. I remember our professor criticizing one particular student who was presenting a rather lack luster and unenthusiastic “reading” of the scriptures to the class. In the middle of his reading the professor yelled - “Stop! You're not reading the daily news, you're proclaiming the good news! Let’s hear that in your voice!”
When the day of my first homily arrived and I ascended the pulpit in the Church where I had made my first communion and confirmation, to say that my heart was not beating double time would be less than honest. Seated in the second pew in front of me - only because I wouldn’t let them sit in the first pew - was my mother, father and sister. I remember proclaiming the Gospel that day - the Gospel of the Good Shepherd, remembering the words of my seminary professor, “Let’s hear that good news in your voice”! Putting down the Lectionary, I took a deep breath and began my first real homily. And so began a part of ministry that has, with God’s grace, continued for 44 years now.
This Sunday always has a way of triggering my imagination with grateful memories as the Church asks her ministers to reflect on the call to ministry in the Church on this Good Shepherd Sunday and one designated by the Church as World Day of Prayer for Vocations. God’s word gives us the vivid image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows his flock and his flock knows him. So attuned are the sheep to their shepherd that even though they may not see him, they recognize his voice when he calls. Even if someone else may call for them, they know that voice and will only respond when he calls.
The call to priestly ministry in the Church today continues to both fascinate but more often than not mystify people. The unfortunate scandals surrounding a few ministers of the Gospel which inevitably end up on the front pages of our newspapers are a sobering reminder to us that, like the apostles themselves, the Lord does not pick the perfect and the sinless to continue his mission. Rather, he picks you and me, men and women whose own weaknesses and sins are continual reminders that it is "not ourselves that we preach but Christ Jesus and him crucified and risen."
Some time ago there was a special on Television that explored the topic of what truly makes people happy and fulfilled in life. They interviewed a group of folks who had won big in state lotteries with the presumption that instant wealth would radically change that so called “happiness quotient” in their lives. Invariably, however, this had very little if anything to do with affecting their happiness. In some cases, a few individuals were less happy and less fulfilled because of their instant wealth. The program concluded that the key to true happiness, weather one was fabulously wealthy or of modest means, had far more to do with living lives out of deeply held convictions and nurturing strong and loving relationships in life. For the vast majority of those interviewed - this is what held and sustained them in happiness.
Reflecting on my own life as a priest, there is no question that living out my vocation as a response to the Lord’s call in my life - being attuned to his voice - and building strong and loving relationships with others has been a hallmark of happiness and fulfillment in priesthood over the years. Now, don’t get me wrong, as in all of our lives, there have indeed been moments of frustration and loneliness, times of anxiety and apprehension - yet those are inevitable aspects of all our lives in this human condition. What ultimately carries us, though, through these moments is the realization that the voice of the shepherd continues to be discerned in the rich and mysterious moments that make up our lives. For a priest, it may be simply listening with compassion to the desire of someone to get “right” with God again. Or, being there at the beginning of life’s journey with all its hope and promise or bringing comfort and consolation to those who lovingly bid farewell to those who continue that journey into eternity. It may be the joy and happiness of witnessing the light of faith transform lives or simply enjoying the sustaining goodness that comes from knowing one is loved in friendship.
“How can the Word be preached unless one is sent” - so St. Paul reminds us. While we are all called and sent forth to witness to God’s word, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, let us remember in a special way those whom the Shepherd’s voice still seeks out to lead God’s Holy people in priestly and religious ministry in our Church. Let us pray that we continue to shape a parish and local church community that supports and celebrates this call which may be going out even today to members of our own parish family. All of us have a role to play in supporting and sustaining vocations to the priesthood and the religious life - by the attitudes we share with others, by the witness we give in our families, and by our supportive prayers offered for an increase of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life.