Traditionally the Church designates that Fourth Sunday of Easter as Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. We are his people, the flock he shepherds. In today’s Gospel we heard the Lord say of those who accept his gift of eternal life: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). Being designated “sheep” by our Lord is, of course, a metaphor. A metaphor is the comparison of two unlike things.
In light of this an important question emerges: Do you follow Jesus, or do you only admire him from what you think is a safe distance? As our reading from Revelation discloses, those who belong to Christ and follow him into eternal life do so regardless of circumstances. For a true disciple, following Christ is not dependent on how life seems to be going at any particular moment. All who follow Christ into eternal life survive what our reading from Revelation calls “the time of great distress” (Rev 7:14).
When is the time of great distress? It stretches from today until the Lord returns in glory. All of the saints persevered through the time of great distress. This is true no matter in which era of the Church a particular saint lived. One of the great benefits we derive from studying the lives of the saints is to be encouraged in our struggles because they struggled too, often suffering greatly. The saints show us what it means to deny ourselves, take up our daily cross, and follow Christ come what may. Persevering to the end will be as true of any future saints as it is of those who are already canonized (Luke 9:23).
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles we learn that Paul and Barnabas suffered for preaching the Good News in Pisidian Antioch. The more fruit their Spirit-filled preaching bore, the more they suffered. But they did not stop proclaiming the Gospel of the Lord when their Spirit-led and Spirit-filled proclamation became difficult. In the wake of being forcibly expelled from the city, Paul and Barnabas left behind a group of joy-filled and Spirit-filled disciples to carry on their work (Acts 13:52).
In this regard, I think it relevant to note that the fruit of the Fifth Sorrowful Mystery of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary- our Lord’s Crucifixion- is perseverance. We pray that we will persevere to the end because we will only be able to do so by the grace of God. It is because we need God’s grace, which is nothing other than God- who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- sharing divine life with us, that we need to avail ourselves of all the means of grace Christ, through the Holy Spirit, graciously places at our disposal.
Foremost among the means the Lord uses to imbue us with his grace are the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. But he gives us other means as well. We have the fundamental spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Alms-giving can also be described as selfless service to others. As most of us are aware, this year we are celebrating an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Even if we were not in the midst of such an observance it would bear noting that practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, which, as the Holy Father noted, cannot be separated, are also powerful means of grace Christ places at our disposal.
Rather than think of the fundamental spiritual disciplines and the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy as lists of rules to follow in order to earn God’s favor, a state-of-mind that is very easy to fall into, we should think of these as concrete ways of following Christ, of being his disciples, people who grasp that eternal life is not life that begins after mortal death, but begins in baptism and continues by our endeavoring to make God’s reign a present reality.
Because today is Good Shepherd Sunday, it is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It should be our constant prayer not only that Christ will call men to become priests who will shepherd his flock, but that those called will respond. This is why before each Sunday Mass we pray together the prayer for vocations. We should never pray this prayer half-heartedly or ever make it a matter of going through the motions. It should be a heartfelt plea to God from his people.
It’s equally important to note that there is only one God-given vocation: Follow Christ. You received this call in baptism. For those of us who are ordained, our basic vestment, the white garment we wear over our street clothes, is called an alb. In Latin, the word albus means white. The alb signifies our baptism. So the alb is like the ceremonial white garment with which a person is presented when s/he is baptized, which, in turn, symbolizes the robes of the great multitude “from every nation, race, people, and tongue" who worship around the Lamb’s throne (Rev 7:9). Upon being presented with her baptismal garment, the newly baptized person is exhorted to see in the garment an outward sign of her Christian dignity, which she is to bring unstained into the kingdom of heaven. Baptism, not ordination, is the fundamental sacrament of the Christian life.
Being a priest or a deacon are only two ways Christians respond to their baptismal call. Other ways of responding are consecrated and/or religious life and marriage. Like holy orders, Christian matrimony is a sacrament. It’s important for Catholic parents to encourage their sons and daughters to consider vocations to priesthood and religious life and to support the young men and women, who, like Jesus’ first followers, desire to leave everything in order to follow Christ more closely by living the evangelical counsels: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Being single, too, is a Christian vocation when the person is committed to living his singleness as a way of following Christ more closely.
Living as we do between the already and the not yet, our reading from Revelation provides us with an inspired and vivid image of the eschatological reality in which we already participate whenever we celebrate the Eucharist. In light of our readings, it seems fitting to end with this prayer:
O God, may the Good Shepherd who willingly laid down his life for his sheep and who is now risen, lift us up, fed by this heavenly food, to be better sheep and better disciples of the one Shepherd