This Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. It is a day in which we reflect on Christ as the Good Shepherd who does not abandon his sheep, and we also reflect on and promote the vocations to the consecrated life, (nuns and brothers who take the vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience), and to the priesthood, following the words of Jesus that, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore, beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest”, (Lk 10:2).
This year, the commemoration of Anzac Day, (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps), 25th April, falls on this Sunday. This is the anniversary of the landing of the Commonwealth forces which included Australian and New Zealander servicemen at Gallipoli, (in modern day Turkey), in 1915, during the First World War. Though the Commonwealth forces suffered heavy casualties and were not able to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula, however, this was the first major conflict Australia was participating in since she became a nation on 1st January 1901.
Today we remember all service men and women, especially all those who have sacrificed their lives that we may have peace. They have not laboured in vain. Their sacrifices shall not be forgotten. Lest we forget.
In the Gospel of today (Jn 10:11-18), Jesus Christ described himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Characteristics of a good shepherd include that he knows the smell of his sheep; the flock can decipher his voice and he is able to protect his flock. A story is told of raiders who ransacked some property and made away with a considerable number of flocks. When the police, through their investigations, uncovered the paddock where the stolen herds were kept, they invited shepherds from the area who had reported that their flocks had been stolen. Each shepherd could separate his flock from the fold because each flock was able to identify the voice of their shepherd.
I had a personal experience of a flock listening and adhering to the voice of their shepherd while I was on pastoral experience in Gwagwalada, Nigeria, in August 1992. On this fateful day, about midday, I had to walk past some cattle grazing beside the road as I returned to my residence. When I approached the grazing cattle, I had a premonition that something ominous was about to happen, hence, I stopped for a while at the edge of their grazing area while I summoned the courage to continue walking to my residence. As I walked past the grazing cattle, suddenly, a bull stopped grazing and stared at me. I kept walking but consciously observing its behaviour. Within the twinkling of an eye, it started racing ferociously towards me. I took off on my heels. It was a grass land and trees were far and few in between. The shepherd suddenly noticed what was happening and gave a loud call to the bull. When I looked back again it was like a magnate had held the bull to the ground; it stood still; I made the sign of the cross because I knew it was almost over for me but for the voice of the shepherd.
Jesus is our good shepherd, and we are his flock, he loved us and cared for us to the point of shedding his blood for our justification. For “no greater love than this, that one lays down one’s life for one’s friends”, (Jn 15:13). We are all invited to listen to Christ’s voice, and he will lead us to greener pastures.
As we reflect on vocation today, I wish to give a succinct account of my vocation to the religious – priestly life. The letter to the Hebrews had advised that no one should take the priestly honour upon oneself, “except one who has been chosen and called as Aaron was”, (Heb 5:4). May I state that to me, a call to the religious and priestly life has been a privilege. I had seven siblings, and grew up as any other child of my time. I applied to join the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, (Spiritans), after my secondary education. This journey to the religious – priestly life included nine years of seminary training which included a novitiate, philosophical and theological studies, and a pastoral year. The novitiate was a year of prayer in which I learnt more about the life and work of the Spiritan Fathers and Brothers. What attracted me to the Spiritans was their simplicity of life, their ministry among the poor and marginalised people all over the world, and their community living.
Like the community of the early Christians, their motto is “one heart and one soul”. During my formation years through spiritual direction, studies, pastoral experiences, and pieces of advice from my formators, I was enabled to discern my call to the religious – missionary life. There were moments of doubt and struggle because we are merely the earthenware that God has allowed to hold the treasures – “the surpassing power is from God and not from us”, (2Cor 4:7).
Since my perpetual consecration as a religious in August 1993 and my ordination to the priesthood in July 1994, I have served in various ministries in Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and now Australia. I have found the ministry at times challenging but always fulfilling. It is the ordinary men and women who have been called and equipped by Christ to do extra-ordinary things. For our youths, may I propose to you that, as you discern a possible career for yourselves, let the vocation to the religious or priestly life also be on the cards. The Church needs you! The Archdiocese of Melbourne needs you! And the Spiritans need you!
May Christ our Good Shepherd who leads us to the truth, raise up religious and priests after his heart. Amen.
Fr Chinua Okeke CSSp