Any parent with small children, or recalls what it was like to have young children will be familiar with something we call, ‘the head count’ – when our children were much younger, my wife Kathi and I were continually turning and sometimes audibly counting heads to make sure we had all of our five children with us whenever we were on a trip or outing.
This applies as well to those charged with the care in any way of children – teachers, drivers, resource people, day care providers – and it extends beyond that – parents with a group of children going to a birthday party, to a day at a park or a beach; people with the responsibility of delivering a group of people from one place to another; people with tour groups, sports teams, pilgrims;
We turn around and almost on reflex repeatedly take stock of the numbers of those in our care- we count and re-count several times to make sure we have everyone with us who is supposed to be with us – so that no one becomes lost and no one is left behind. And anyone who has ever experienced the absence of a child – when they lose track of them, even if only for a few moments- experiences that icy terrible dread that we feel right through the depths of our heart when we think, even if only for the briefest of times, that we have lost one of these little ones in our care.
That no one is left behind, abandoned, or forgotten. This is the message of our Gospel today; the message of the Good Shepherd; this beautiful, often-quoted passage from St. John’s Gospel speaks to each of us of the care, concern and deep love that Jesus has for each of His sheep- for those who hear His voice and respond to Him.
Shepherds in Jesus time on earth were really outcasts; their work kept them outside the towns and villages; they were occupied in a dirty trade, and were prevented from participating in day to day social activities, including worship in the synagogues and temples- but it provided them with an income; yet here we have the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – choosing to set aside His own comforts, His own life; setting himself apart to be in the company of His sheep; not for pay or compensation – but purely out of love. And because He gives up everything for His sheep, the sheep know and trust and follow Him. And He reunites us with God as we were meant to be from the beginning.
In essence, Our Lord describes Himself continually doing the ‘head count’, not wanting a single sheep he has called to be left behind or lost. And as much as we know how we can feel that sense of dread when we fear someone in our care has been ‘left behind’, we can only imagine how God, who loves every one of His children – every member of the entire human race since time began – feels the loss of each and every person who chooses not to be reunited with Him.
This deep desire that no one be abandoned or left behind; this is a desire – this is a responsibility that is taken up by every person who seeks to minister to others in the name of Christ; we think of the obvious examples of good shepherds in our own day, and usually we come to think of the Pope; we think of our bishops with their croziers or staffs, shaped sometimes like a shepherd’s crook – leading and guiding us towards a deeper relationship that God calls each of us to. We think of our pastors who lead us on a parish level – we might think of deacons who assist in guiding and teaching in a ministry of service, or those who lead in the many and varied lay ministries within our Church.
This Sunday marks the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. It is a time to remind us that we should ask God, as St. Therese of Lisieux called Him ‘ The Lord of the Harvest’ ‘ to send more laborers into His harvest.’ It is a time for those who are perhaps considering a vocation to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life, to seriously listen to that voice whispering in their ear. I would encourage those considering priesthood ; many seminaries have ‘Come and See’ weekends that you are welcome to attend; for any men who have considered serving God and their community as permanent deacons, attend an information presentation on the diaconate; There are religious communities of men and that are open to having those considering a vocation in the consecrated life visit and experience a bit of the life of their orders, to help discern a calling from Our Lord.
But there is so much to be done in leading and guiding the people of God – every baptized Christian has a role to play in bringing others into this wonderful reunion with God – from those who teach about our faith – to parents, to grandparents, even children – whether we lead others as clergy; as religious; as teachers, in public service, as supervisors in a workplace; as mentors to those less experienced in our trades, wherever and whenever we are in a position of trust and responsibility for others, we are all shepherds and as Catholics we are all responsible for taking up our roles of guiding others , by our word and example, to come to know Christ and enter into a deeper relationship with God.
But Jesus warned us that there would be thieves and bandits who would try to guide us away from Him, from His love – who would try to lure us away from living out our baptismal call to holiness as children of God – and we see so many examples of that in our own society; voices that place individual comfort and gain ahead of everything else; voices that tell us God is irrelevant- that the Church is out of touch with our lives; voices that tell us that rather than give people the dignity they deserve, they are to be used as a means to an end for profit or pleasure; that caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless are someone else’s problem.
And just like with the head count of children there is a double-edged sword here; I speak for myself, but this is true of all who deeply love God and want to share that love with everyone; Sometimes we have to remind our sisters and brothers – and be reminded ourselves- of teachings and guidance that some of us would rather not hear – much the same as parents and teachers who have to make some unpopular decisions at times – but when we do this, it is done out of love and charity, following the example of the Good Shepherd, so that none may be lost.
And while there is a tremendous sense of joy when God uses us to draw someone into the faith, or uses us to help someone return to Him or come closer to Him – there is just as tremendous a sense of personal loss each time we witness someone separate themselves or distance themselves from the faith; the departure of so many from the Church – from attendance at Mass – from putting their faith into practice in their daily lives – this really is a tragedy of immense proportions; it is a huge loss and it is something that we all mourn and we grieve over.
I am quite confident that every person reading this knows at least one Catholic who has not been to Mass in a long time, or no longer receives the Sacraments. It is in that imitation of our Good Shepherd that each of us is expected to encourage, in charity, these brothers and sisters of ours to ‘come home’; to offer in all sincerity an atmosphere of welcome to them on behalf of Our Lord. It is up to each of us to give voice to Christ’s invitation to each of them to return to celebrate and worship with us; what kind of a response will we get? We may think, “well, if I ask someone to come back to church, they’ll probably say no”- but they won’t say ‘yes’ if we don’t invite them.
We can all serve as reminders that no matter how many times we may wander away from God’s will; that how many times we become lost, that Our Lord never abandons us; that He is always calling and guiding us, if only we will respond to His Call; to His voice.
The voice of the good shepherd, calling each of us; he takes an interest in each and every one of us on an individual level; it is to each one of us individually that he extends His invitation to follow Him; so that we may “have life, and have it abundantly”; He calls each of us to lead others to Him – to become part of His body – The Church; as Shepherds after His own example.
So again I ask you – no I beg you – for those who feel a calling to follow God, particularly in the consecrated life as sisters or brothers, as priests or deacons – please take the time to prayerfully and seriously consider following the Good Shepherd’s voice… Join in the harvest – help with the ‘head count’ – For those who do not feel that particular calling, please pray for those who serve you and God, and pray for more vocations – that God will give us, His people, true and holy shepherds to lead and guide and protect us, so that none will be left behind; that none will be lost.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!