Friday, May 29, 2009

5-3-2009: 4th Easter (B)

Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12/Psalm 118/1 John 3:1-2/John 10:11-18
Good Shepherd Sunday, today, is designated by the Church as World Day of Prayer for Vocations. Specifically, vocations to the priesthood. The shortage of priests seems the constant lament these last forty or so years (in the United States anyway). Over these past few decades there have been many attempts to increase the number of candidates for the priesthood. Have any been successful? Hardly. Program after program has been tried and various strategies engaged, imitating the recruitment psychologies of successful corporate firms to that of the military. All to little avail. The recurring motif at the heart of all the programs and strategies has been the image of the Good Shepherd of today’s gospel. And the repeated icon used on vocation flyers and invitations to come and seek: that pious Protestant saccharine image of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, tunic-wearing and sandal-clad Jesus gently knocking on the cottage door (somewhere in the English countryside, perhaps?) looking as if he were about to ask for a cup of tea. My humble suggestion vis-à-vis this vocation-awareness chic: Drop the shepherd bit.

It’s nice, of course, to think of a call to priesthood as a career in shepherding. Bishops, with their crosiers originating in shepherds’ crooks, can make a direct claim. And although priests and bishops – and every other Christian for that matter – is called to become more like Christ, we priests trace our ancestral line to the lost sheep rather than the shepherd who seems to have his act totally together. When Christ called his first disciples (and who knows if they were the first called: they might well have been the bottom of the barrel) he didn’t call any shepherds, but mostly fishermen along with a zealot, a would-be traitor, and a tax guy. It’s hard to imagine any of those twelve as the best Jewish society had to offer. And as far as their strength of character and moral virtue were concerned, there was quite a lot to be desired. But like many of their successors down the centuries, it wasn’t their perfection that was the prerequisite to their priesthood but their openness to follow what attracted them and their willingness to change that became the cornerstone of their vocation.

The recent document evaluating the Vatican’s visitation of seminaries in the U.S. reads like a checklist of qualities of perfection which seminarians must exhibit to be judged worthy of ordination. It’s not such a bad thing – this pursuit of perfection; but it seeks to form shepherds at the expense of acknowledging that we are all, first and foremost, imperfect sheep. Imitating perfection by rote and ritual may seem at first attractive and make for a good presentation but time and pastoral service wear the veneer thin. The image of Jesus knocking at the cottage door in the pristine countryside at tea-time may be pleasant to ponder, but I wonder if it’s authentic. And for us, in this twenty-first century of Christian discipleship, authenticity is perhaps the only thing that attracts and the very thing we most desperately need.

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