HOME, HAVEN, HEAVEN: FRUITS OF A SHEPHERD'S CARE

Catholic Homily/ Sunday Reflection
4th Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 13, 2008

Confidence and utter trust in God’s care and loving solicitude come out as primary messages in today’s liturgy. The Opening Prayer would have us beg God for “new strength” that comes “from the courage of Christ our Shepherd.” The alternative prayer is addressed to the same God who is “helper in time of distress.” Echoing the words of Psalm 23, it speaks about believers not having to “fear,” though they may “walk in the valley of darkness,” for “they follow in faith the call of the shepherd whom [God] has sent for their hope and strength.”

There is something very real and truly existential in what the liturgy would have us focus on today. All around us, events and concrete realities in everyday life speak to us of hopelessness and despondency. In the midst of what George Weigel refers to as “all the awfulness of this [past] century,” in a world that is inundated by a swell tide of secularism that threatens to consign traditional ethics and timeless doctrine to oblivion, living as I do, in a country that enjoys the unsavory reputation of being the second most corrupt nation in Asia (while also being the only predominantly Christian nation in the same region), there is, from the purely human viewpoint, precious little to hold on in terms of hope, courage, strength, and optimism with regards to the future.

As believers and as followers of Christ, the true shepherd, we are all mired in the “difficulties of life” that the introduction to the Collect refers to. We are all tested to the core, hard pressed on all sides, perhaps even overwhelmed, by the conflicting and widely contrasting pull of divergent ideologies and schools of thought, even in the context of the Church we all belong to, and, love.

Why, even the Church as both a human and divine institution, is painted by the world’s lively press and the mass media of communications, as a purely human institution wracked by intrigues, politicking, and factionalisms! In the heels of the demise of a saintly and well-loved Pope, people are at their wits’ end, trying to put forward each their own candidate, whom, they hope, would be “more attuned to the times,” and would be “less conservative,” and would pull all the stops to the Church’s perceived bigotry, doctrinal rigidity, and “cultural backwardness.”

The Church – and the world we love is in the midst of all sorts of difficulties. On the home front, we, too, are immersed in various forms and varying levels of difficulties and problems. In this world marked by ethical and doctrinal relativism, with people everywhere wrapped up in what Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, referred to as the “major anxieties of our time,” (Dives in Misericordia, 1980), it is all too easy for so many of us in and out of the institutional Church, to sell out to the arbitrariness of modern society, and to comply to the world’s views, succumb to the world’s expectations, and give in to all the subtle and not-so-subtle pressure to adapt and conform to the powerful gospel of godless materialism and ethical liberalism.

We want to have a shepherd, patterned not after God’s own heart, but one “created in our own image and likeness.” We want a shepherd alright in replacement of John Paul II, but we want a shepherd who could be pressured to comply to the world’s current standards and norms, who would capitulate to what John Paul II referred to as the godless world’s “culture of death,” We want a leader alright, but we want one who could be led to do what current, contemporary, postmodern culture dictates.

I would like to veer a little off course today and follow a less trodden path for a change. The readings speak a lot about the shepherd, his protective nature, and his self-imposed task of guiding, guarding, and nurturing his sheep. In the gospel, in a rare case of mixed metaphors, Jesus calls himself both as “shepherd” and as “gate for the sheep.” In either case, the allusion is clear. Jesus Christ, the shepherd and the gate for the sheep, has nothing but the welfare of his sheep in mind. As shepherd, Jesus’ voice is what we hear and follow. As gate for the sheep, Jesus’ figure offers authentic leadership that is basically characterized by authority understood primarily as service. His leadership is not primarily one of honor, but as “onus,” (the Latin world for “burden” or “load”), that is, one of selfless service to others.

I would like us to look at the other side of the fence, as it were, and see the corresponding role of the “sheep” who “hear his voice,” and who “follow him, because they recognize his voice.” What type of “sheep” could we be? Or do we, if ever at all, identify ourselves as sheep? Are we sheep that are willing to “hear the shepherd’s voice” and are willing to obey? Are we sheep that are ready to pass through the gate and not among those who “climb over elsewhere?” Are we that type of sheep, who, on account of our unwillingness to “hear” and “obey” end up clueless as to where to go and what to do? Are we that type of sheep, who, instead of listening to only one voice, end up getting blinded by the so many conflicting and contrasting voices of dissent and disobedience to the voice of the true and authentic shepherd in our midst? Could we be among those sheep who make it all but impossible for other sheep to hear the voice of faith and reason, the voice of faith seeking understanding, because, pride has established its own criterion of truth? Could we be sheep for whom the Word of God now means nothing, unable as it is to penetrate through a thick wall of prideful attachment to its own brand of truth?

Or are we the strayed, lost, hapless, and hopeless sheep who are simply, and sincerely baffled and clueless as to what to do and where to go from here? Honestly in search for God and His saving mercy, some of us may be lost in the welter of so many conflicting ideologies and teachings from all sides, from the oversimplified New Age doctrine, to the seemingly attractive and “dogma-free” Biblical fundamentalism and raucous evangelism.

Or to push our question to the extreme, are we sheep who simply have ceased to care owing to the fact that, thanks to a sinful, selfish, and uncaring world, we have for so long been “walking through the valley of darkness,” one after another, with no apparent reprieve in sight?

Whichever group we may belong, this Sunday’s message is for us. Today belongs to all the lost, questioning, questing, hopeless, and scattered sheep of Christ’s sheepfold all over the world. Today belongs to clueless and helpless sheep who need to be cared for, and who feel the pull and the call towards home where we all belong.

Our erstwhile shepherd of 26 years has shown us the way. Shepherd for us as fellow believer, priest, bishop, and Pope in life, he is now sheep with us, by us, together with us, in his death. In life, he called us and beckoned us to hear the “good shepherd’s” voice, the voice of Christ, whom he represented on earth. In a firm, clear, unflinching, and unwavering voice, Pope John Paul II told us over and over again, to “be not afraid,” never to lose hope, to journey on through life’s difficulties with courage. In his dying and in his death, he spoke to us all the more, that being sheep himself like us, who heard the call of Christ the Supreme Shepherd, to suffering and sacrifice, to fidelity in service and love for Christ and His Mystical Body, the Church, there is hope, unwavering hope. As Weigel puts it, “more than any other, he embodied the Christian vision of the greatness of the human possibility.”

It is now three years since Pope John Paul II has gone home to the Father. As shepherd, he continues to lead us to the ultimate haven of hope. He is now in heaven which is our earthly hope’s ultimate object of concern. As searching sheep together with us, his life and death, have now become a pledge and promise of the salvific fruits of the shepherd’s care of him who, today, once more declares: “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Let us all together join in prayer for ourselves and for the Church all over the world:

Father God, though your people walk in the valley of darkness, no evil should they fear; for they follow in faith the call of the shepherd whom you have sent for their hope and strength.

Attune our minds to the sound of his voice, lead our steps in the path he has shown, that we may know the strength of his outstretched arm and enjoy the light of your presence for ever.

Giovanni Paolo, santo … prega per noi!

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