Several years ago I had the great privilege of visiting the Holy Land. It was an extraordinary experience to be able to visit all the places where Jesus lived and preached. I remember being struck at seeing shepherds leading their sheep, something which you don’t see in my home country (Ireland) because they are a different kind of animal. In Palestine the shepherd walks in front and the sheep follow in a line behind. You can still see them doing this in the fields. It makes more sense of what we read in the Scriptures where Jesus says ‘I know my sheep and mine know me’ and ‘He leads me to green pastures.’
I also remember hearing a story of a tourist who was visiting one of these places and was looking at the sheep. To his horror he watched as the shepherd took one of the lambs and deliberately broke its leg. When he saw this he went over and began to give out to the shepherd, saying ‘I saw what you just did.’ The shepherd got angry and said ‘You know nothing about what is going on here’. He then explained to the tourist what he was doing. He said that the lamb was constantly running away, because he was afraid of the shepherd. When this happens the shepherd breaks the leg of the animal and immediately puts it into a splint to heal. During the time when it is healing he carries the animal on his shoulders. By the time it has healed the lamb is no longer afraid of the shepherd and stays close to him, and is therefore no longer in danger of getting lost. They actually do this.
Today is vocations Sunday also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’; a day when we remember and pray for priests. St. Therese of Lisieux said she could never understand why people were always saying that we should pray for priests until she went on a pilgrimage to Rome with several priests. Then she understood! The priest is meant to be a shepherd in the sense of one who leads people to God, or points people in the direction of God. If I am to do that, my life as a priest must be completely centred on God to begin with, because I cannot give you what I do not have. Nothing I have of myself will be of any use to you. The only thing that I have which is of any use to you is what I receive from God. I am only a vessel or instrument of God, at least that is the idea.
We also know that we priests are not always as good as we should be. Sadly we have often let people down in different ways and even led people away from God, which is something that we will be answerable to God for. In the book of Ezekiel God says to the prophet, ‘Woe to the shepherds who do not feed my sheep.’
So why does God keep on calling people who are weak? Why doesn’t He pick stronger people, or more reliable people? Perhaps it is to make it all the more obvious that we are only instruments that He uses. Of ourselves we are nothing. But the message that we pass on to you from God is everything. It is like a glass of really good wine. Whether the glass itself is good or bad, beautiful or ugly, the contents remain the same. I think that that is worth remembering when you find yourself disappointed with a priest. Remember that while of course it is a great help if he is a very holy man, the only thing that is really important is the message that he is bringing. We are only messengers, or as St. Paul says, ‘But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Cor 4:7). We are only cracked jars that carry this extraordinary treasure. What matters is the treasure that we bring to you and not the one who carries that treasure. That treasure is the teaching of Jesus Christ, that He has won eternal life for us through his death and resurrection; that He is Lord of all things and all things are subject to him. Also that He has given us the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins. That is what matters. Jesus is the one who offers us the fullness of life, and He is the only one who can offer the fullness of life. We continue to turn to him for life and hopefully we priests will continue to be vessels, or instruments helping people to rediscover these extraordinary treasures which God has given us.
‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’