|Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem|
Twice I have had the privilege of visiting the Holy Land. It was a wonderful 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 I had never seen in any other country, because they are a different kind of animal. At one stage we were about to celebrate mass in the place that is celebrated as ‘The Shepherd’s Field,’ where the shepherds who saw the angels were meant to have been. As we were getting ready for mass, two heads popped up over the hill and then two sheep came to us and walked right into the middle of everyone and began poking around. The only sheep I have ever seen would run away. 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 chastise the shepherd, saying ‘I saw what you just did. How dare you hurt an animal,’ etc. 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 and so he was constantly in danger of getting lost, or being eaten by a wild animal. When this happens the shepherd breaks the leg of the animal and immediately puts it into a splint to heal. During the time 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. Sometimes the Lord allows us to struggle which keeps us coming back to him for mercy. It says in Romans, ‘God made all people prisoners of disobedience, so that He might show mercy to them all.’ (Romans 11:32).
Today is vocations Sunday, also known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’; a day when we remember and pray for priests and priestly vocations. St. Thérèse 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! Priests are just men like any other men, with the same strengths and weaknesses. The priest is meant to be a shepherd, 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 as a human being 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 sometimes even led people away from God, which is something that we will be held accountable for. In the book of Ezekiel God says to the prophet, ‘Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves. Should not shepherds take care of the sheep?’ (Ex 34:2). I always find that line a bit frightening. God has given me the gift of the priesthood, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility. I will be answerable for how I have lived it.
So why does God keep on calling people who are weak? Why doesn’t He pick stronger people, or more reliable people? I have no doubt 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, is irrelevant. What matters is the content. If you find yourself disappointed with a priest, or if he lets you down, try and remember that. Also, the priest is not the Church. He is one person and a certain amount of people will always cause scandal. One out of twelve of the Apostles betrayed Jesus.
The devil is clever and will jump on any bad experience you have had with a priest, in confession, or any conversation. I’m always amazed at how many people have walked away from the Church because of one bad experience with a priest. Would you never go shopping again if you had a bad experience with a cashier, or with a waiter in a restaurant? But the devil will say, ‘See, this is what the Church is like. Why would you want to be part of that?’
While it is a great help if the priest is a 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-pots 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; that He has given us the Scriptures, the Eucharist, the forgiveness of sins. That is the only thing that matters. Jesus is the one who offers us the fullness of life, and He is the only one who can offer it. 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, in spite of our weakness.
|St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests|
What if the priest is not a very holy man and even living a bad life? Is God less present in the mass or anywhere else, because the priest is not a good man? Of course not. God would never let his presence depend on the holiness of a priest. Even if the priest does not give good example, the bread and wine still become the Body and Blood of Christ; sins are still forgiven through confession, the sick receive the same grace when they are anointed.
I know a lot of priests and most of them are good men and many of them are holy men, but we also need prayer, because we are human beings and we are subject to the same temptations as everyone else. We need your support and that is how it is meant to work. The shepherd guides the flock and the flock take care of their shepherd. That has also been my experience and I thank you for that. We all try to play our part.
God has given us the priesthood so that we can have the Eucharist, the gift of Jesus himself. The two are intimately linked and are a great gift to us. Everything God gives us is to help us and because He loves us.
‘I have come that you may have life and have it to the full.’