Fourth Sunday of Easter B – I am the good shepherd, says the Lord; I know my sheep, and mine know me.

April 21, 2024.

            This is the Good Shepherd Sunday or the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Let’s pray in promoting vocations to the priesthood, religious life, diaconate, consecrated life and holy matrimony. The word “shepherd” comes through strongly in the readings, a total of seven times, and it’s a familiar image – Jesus as a shepherd is frequently depicted in scripture and art. Psalm 23 is the most familiar psalm, with people often turning to it for comfort at funerals. And yet, though we hear about Jesus, the good shepherd, laying down his life for us, his sheep – do we really even know what that means? Most of us don’t regularly interact with sheep – certainly not as often as those who lived in Jesus’ time. We often have the image of a clean, light-skinned Jesus dressed in white carrying a lamb on his shoulders. Perhaps the image is comforting, but I have to wonder — is that what Jesus meant for us to think of? The reality of sheep is quite different than the dream of them. Sheep are not easy to train. They are simple, gentle spirits who scare easily. They leave clumps of wool behind when they are shedding. The majority of sheep are happy to follow and not lead. Most of the time they’re quiet but they scream loudly when they don’t want to be caught. The picture we have in our minds of Jesus carrying a lamb on his shoulders definitely is a true reflection of Jesus being the good shepherd.  But, I think it is likely that the lamb is bleating for dear life – perhaps even wriggling around, trying to get free. Maybe if we’re honest with ourselves, we might find that closer to our own experiences, too. God knows better than we do. Are we, like a gentle lamb willing to let go of control and allow God to work? Or are we bleating and wriggling a whole lot, finding it hard to give up control? Though we know Jesus is the good shepherd, it can still be hard for us to fully trust him. It is easy to say “Let go and let God!” but it is not easy to do.

            Another image of the good shepherd is that he lays down his life for his sheep. Drawing close to Jesus demands truly Christ-like behaviour.  We are all called to live the life of Jesus, so we too ought to lay down our lives for one another.  We are invited to examine how great and caring our love for our family and our friends is. We lay down our lives when we put someone else’s needs above our own. When we stay up late to help a kid with their homework, or cook a meal for the family, even if we’re not that hungry. We lay down our lives when we stay up all night for someone who is sick at home or at the hospital.  We lay down our lives when we say “yes” to service in some way, giving our time to a good cause. We lay down our lives, finally, when we give up control, when we stop wriggling and bleating and, instead, relax, trusting that God is taking us to a good, green pasture, that God is leading us beside still waters. Laying down our lives is hard because it challenges our sense of ego. It requires us to know our place as the sheep, not the shepherd. Sometimes, when we ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” we put ourselves on par with God – forgetting that God is God and we are not. When Jesus lays down his life for us, He is full of humble service. Pope Francis once said, “God does not exalt us because of our gifts, because of our wealth or how well we do things, but because of humility… God lifts up the one who humbles him or herself; He lifts up the one who serves.”  I always find our Pope Francis truly exemplifies what a good shepherd is to supposed to be.  He leads many of our bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay ministers, mothers, fathers, young people to be good shepherds in our community. These people show their care and compassion.  They have hands to help and hug others, feet to hasten to the poor and needy, eyes to see misery and want, and ears to hear the sighs of those in sorrow.  Jesus is the good shepherd and he is telling us to respond to the call to good shepherding in our vocation as priests, deacons, religious, consecrated life, mothers, fathers this Sunday. Let’s encourage one another, especially the young generation, to say like Samuel, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening”.  As Pope St. John Paul II always says, “Do not be afraid”,  so let’s be assured that Jesus is carrying us on his own shoulders. May that knowledge – may that assurance be a blessing for our discernment.

            I had my discernment when I received an invitation from Bishop Luc in the spring of 2003 to consider  participating in the diocesan first four years permanent diaconate program with my wife. I was shocked. Could I be a good shepherd? But after some discussion with my wife, I answered the call and accepted the invitation. Part of the difference between Deacons and lay people lies in the permanence and commitment of the deacon. The Diaconate vocation has three dimension: Altar, Word, Service. There’s a permanence involved with being a deacon that we can’t just walk away from. The deacon ought to serve in and out of the parish. A deacon has to present the totality of what the church believes. A layperson has the freedom to focus all of his or her energy on whatever issues they want to focus on and he/she can quit any time. But as an ordained person, we have a responsibility to do the best we can to present all of it. The only thing liturgically that the deacon is required to do is proclaim the gospel. There are other actions he might do during the liturgy that could also be performed by other ministers. But there’s a logic to the deacon doing them, especially the general intercessions. Why? Because it ought to be the deacon who really knows the needs of the community and knows the needs of the people. Ideally, it would be the deacon who’s composing those prayers and personalizing them to the particular community he’s with.

            Before my diaconate ordination, I already worked at the soup kitchen, involved in teaching the Christopher Leadership Course (a public speaking course that is Christ-centred), training and scheduling parish liturgical ministers and shepherding at Live-in weekends (an evangelizing weekend retreat).  After my ordination, I added to my task list the pastoral care in hospital, communion to the sick and shut ins. In those times, there was only one parish and two priests in Fort McMurray, I presided the Sunday Celebration of the Word without Priest with Communion on the first Sunday of the month and all funerals in McKay. Occasionally, I did the services in Anzac, Janvier and Conklin too. Whatever I did and wherever I went, my wife always accompanied me.  I also did Catholic elementary schools visitations, especially after every Christmas and Easter and talked about Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Lord with the children. In 2008, I joined the Chalice Deacons appeal team (Chalice uses deacons to make appeals in parishes in Canada to help children in need all over the world). Originally, I was responsible for appealing in parishes in St Paul Diocese only, then expanded to other diocese.  I also did appeals in Chinese parishes in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver. Then came my stroke in 2014. Bishop Paul visited me in the hospital. I asked him if I could retire then. He said a Deacon is permanent and I can continue proclaiming the Word by writing reflections every Sunday, and I can continue to serve by praying.  My doctor in the hospital, Dr. Vitug encouraged me to do so too as it would get my brain working. Fr. Andrew wanted to engage me to continue to serve the parish by doing the weekly Prayer of the Faithful. In short, I was a shepherd trying to do my best before my stroke and is now being the sheep carried on the shoulders of many good shepherds.

            Besides being the fourth Sunday in Easter, we are prepared to celebrate Earth Day tomorrow.

Earth Day is celebrated annually on 22 April by billions of people all over the world. Earth Day forms a special time in people’s lives. Those involved range from children in schools to mayors of towns and cities, and, as we know from Pope Francis’ consistent call to ‘the shepherds of the world’, all involved daily in the struggle to protect and care for our common home. Finally, the image of the Good Shepherd carrying the lamb on his shoulders gives us a permanent assurance that each one of us is loved as if we were the only one.  Jesus is telling us that he knows us individually and thinks so much of us that he cannot let us out of his sight.  When our sin causes us to wander and stray, the Good Shepherd will come to our rescue and bring us back into the safety and companionship of the fold.  So how are we responding to this intimate relationship? Is our behaviour evident in showing Christ as the cornerstone of our life or have we kept him at a safe distance?