"I am the good shepherd..and I will lay down my life for the sheep." (John 10:14-15)
I love my priesthood. I can’t think of a better life. Obviously it has it challenges especially when confronted with the image that Christ presents us with in today’s gospel. He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. The priest is supposed to model his life and his ministry on this image. Unlike the hired hand in the gospel, the priest doesn’t leave when challenges comes because like Christ he loves and cares for his sheep. This is why this image of Christ is so comforting: no matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, he will always come to our rescue and bring us the peace and the comfort that we so desperately desire in the arms of our God. Every day is an opportunity for me as a priest to model the Good Shepherd and to bring that peace to my flock, but as stated previously, it has its challenges which come mainly from what I want and not from what God wants from me. I offer three examples that happened to me just in the last week.
Story 1: Thursday night was incredible. The N.F.L. draft was on. The Panthers were playing a Game 7 playoff game. Game 7! And the Heat were playing their last regular season game…sort of. It was a sports fan’s paradise. Around 9:00 p.m., one of my former students who is now in college texts me on Facebook. Now, he knows me very well and knows that my attention was being occupied by three simultaneous sporting events, yet all of the sudden I see this strange feature pop up on my computer screen. He was trying to video chat with me on Facebook which I had never done. I clicked on it and he pops up and tells me, “I really need to talk to you. I really need to go to confession.” I look back at him and say, “It ain’t happening over the Internet and I definitely ain’t driving up to Boston to hear your confession.” Be that as it may, we ended up talking for about 90 minutes. He just needed someone to listen to him, to counsel him, to tell him the Jesus loved him, and to tell him that despite bumps in the road that I was very proud of him. It turned out to be an awful sports night especially when the Panthers lost in double overtime. But that conversation with my former student made my night.
Story 2: After that conversation and the late hockey game, I was so wound up that I couldn’t sleep. I slept maybe four hours, and I woke up and went off to celebrate morning Mass. As many of you know, I take great pride in celebrating the Mass, but that morning I was so tired that I was going through the motions. My homily was horrendous. My prayers were flat. During the silence after communion I realized that I did not offer a Mass worthy of the Lord and worthy of his flock. I am my own worst critic and felt absolutely terrible. I gave the final blessing, processed out, and stood by the door to greet the people on the way out. All of the sudden, this lady comes up to me and tells me, “Father, thank you for celebrating such a beautiful Mass.” I was speechless, and thought, “Did she attend the same Mass that I did?” Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit was at work where I failed and God’s ways are always perfect despite using imperfect instruments. The tired shepherd manages to reach out to one of his sheep.
Story 3: After that Mass on Friday, I went to the office and had a sick call at the hospital from a homebound gentleman that I regularly visit. Every six weeks to the day, he calls me up to ask that I visit him to hear his confession. My receptionist wonders what this good man possibly has to confess especially in such a short period of time, but even though he calls at sometimes the most inopportune times, I visit him and get much more from him than I could ever give him. On Friday, I remembered that our other priest had gone to visit him earlier in the week, but this gentleman still insisted on seeing a priest before hip surgery that afternoon. Again, I was exhausted, but I drove over to the hospital nonetheless. He lit up when he saw me. He asked for me to hear his confession and then asked if I had brought him communion. (I wasn’t supposed to give it to him because of the fast before surgery, but it’s Jesus!) He was so grateful because he really feared that he might not make it through the surgery (he did), and as I was about to leave, this 80-something year old man grabbed my hand really tight, thanked me for what I had done, and started to kiss my hand over and over again. I had brought him the Lord. Now he was at peace.
Each story tells of a sheep seeking out a shepherd who in all three instances was somewhat disengaged but through his sheep was able to see God’s hand at work in each one of them. Any priest will tell you that they do not deserve this awesome responsibility that has been placed on us, that we so often fall short of this model of Christ the Good Shepherd, and that it is your prayers that sustain us and allow us to minister to you. That is why on this Good Shepherd Sunday and World Day of Prayer for Vocations, pray for your priests and pray for more priests. We are imperfect instruments undeservedly made effective by the grace of the Holy Spirit. I look at the three stories I have told you and go back to my opening statement: I love my priesthood because there is no better life. I am called to be your shepherd and I am honored, unworthy as I am, that despite my faults and many weakness, my sheep still humble me by simply calling me, “Father.”