4th Sunday of Easter; Good Shepherd Sunday; Vocations Sunday.
Last Sunday is called by all of the above, all are true and all shine a light onto a different aspect of this feast.
It is only the 4th Sunday of Easter!
As we feast longer than we fast we still have the 5th and 6th Sundays of Easter to party! There is also a 7th Sunday but since the Feast of the Ascension was moved from the Thursday to this Sunday some years ago we lose this final Sunday. Which I think is a great pity. It makes me feel short changed as suddenly we only have 6 weeks of Easter rather than 7. Also I like gathering with my worshipping community outside of Sundays and Holy Days of obligation offer us this opportunity. And lastly I grew up with the Feast being inextricably linked with the day on which it was celebrated…Ascension Thursday and for me it will be for ever so.
Whether we are in the Liturgical Year A (Matthew) B (Mark) or C (Luke) we hear the Gospel of John proclaiming Jesus as the Good Shepherd. In fact we hear Jesus Himself proclaim that He is the Good Shepherd, for He says ‘I AM…’ just one of the seven I AM statements that John has Jesus speak. As a woman who loves metaphor these seven I AM statements speak straight to my heart but for the purposes of this particular post they stand in evidence that one name does not fit all.
Throughout the world this Sunday is also Vocations Sunday. Whilst the term Vocation has taken on a myriad of loosely connected meanings today, for the Church it had a very particular meaning. Vocations are about one’s state of life. Thus Marriage, Priesthood (including the Permanent Diaconate) or Religious Life are all Vocations to which God can call us. The main difference in these Vocations and a vocation (for example to teaching) is that through their Sacramental nature the Church sees these states of life as permanent, irrevocable and in self- giving to others. Although all states of life are deemed to have equal importance, in reality priesthood is upheld as THE Vocation. As a mother of boys I still feel a failure as neither of them has been called to the priesthood. Yes I know that I would rather die than give either of them to an institution which I see as abusive of our secular priests, but somehow, somewhere, despite everything I have swallowed the insidious belief that a good catholic mother is one who raises her sons for the priesthood. (When I quieten this voice, I am profoundly grateful that they still believe in the Lord and live lives of faith.)
This Sunday also invites us to raise money through a second collection for the training of those in Priestly formation. According to the latest figures it costs in the region of £26-27,000 per year, per man in formation. When I worked for a charity that trained lay people for parish ministry, the diocese refused to support us to the tune of £10,000 per year to help with admin costs and bursaries. The students, who gained a Foundation Degree, paid their own fees, but as a charity we still needed to pay rent and normal overheads. So yes this is a personal gripe but it also leads to wider questions of how we form our priests.
To have a financial collection for only one third of what the Church sees as a Vocation, which in itself is not open to all the baptised, seems unjust which is perhaps why in my parish the collection for these men was announced as raising funds for future Leaders of the Church. Except of course by denying the real reason for the collection my pp exposed how he and many others see their Vocation. Rather than see themselves as shepherds or pastors they see themselves and only themselves as leaders. They can not distinguish governance and authority with priesthood. Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium calls for priests to be more like shepherds, shepherds who not only know but live in such close proximity that they smell like their sheep. That is often a far cry from the image presented as a leader.
Yet it should come as no surprise that some priests see themselves as Leaders. The way in which they are trained is elitist and expensive. Sent to seminaries, often away from the world, protected from real life, they are taught in very small classes, in very large, cold and financially crippling buildings.
I believe that we need priests. I believe that good education and formation is essential. I believe that we need to model priesthood not as cult but as servant. And I believe that governance and priesthood are not forever and inevitably linked. Thus I believe that the way we train our priests needs to change. Rather than separating these men from the world, they could get their theology degree at a university which at the moment costs considerably less than what it costs in a seminary. They could live together in small communities under the supervision of a parish priest which would again bring the cost down but more importantly enable them to model base communities and be spaces of prayer for those who could join them. They would see at first hand the needs of those to whom they are called to serve; they would see how hard parents work to bring their children up in the faith, the damage caused by some of the rules of our church, how often a Catholic education is the tail that wags the catechetical dog. They might begin to understand and they would indeed smell like sheep.
What vibrancy they could bring to our parishes and what vibrancy and places of formation our parishes could be to them.
However disparate these names for last Sunday appear, they are, without doubt to me, linked. We live as an Easter People, we know the end of the story and we are called to live as a saved and redeemed people. This is possible because of Jesus the Good Shepherd who knows us intimately and whose voice we learn to recognise through Scripture, prayer and one another. We can dare to live our Vocations as we know that the Risen Lord only calls us to good things. And of course we have the Good Shepherd on which to model our Vocation which must be one of service not leadership.