I am the Door of the Sheepfold : I am the Good Shepherd

The Rev. Dr. Michael Halsall is the Director of Curriculum Development at Allen Hall Seminary, Westminster and a Priest in the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. This means he knows a bit about what it means to be a priest and what it takes to form young men for the priesthood. It also means he knows the ground: he knows what is going on currently in the Church with regard to vocations and priestly formation. He gave a most excellent homily for Good Shepherd Sunday (last Sunday) which I thought I would share with you here:

The earliest known image that we have of Jesus, is of a man carrying a sheep over his shoulders, with another sheep standing/following close by. He is dressed very roughly, with a leather jerkin and sandals; no robe, no hat or ring of office. The image was found in the Catacombs which lie just outside the city of Rome, where Christians chose to be buried when it was unsafe to bury bodies in the city during the plague seasons.

In our technical, digitally mesmerising age, the idea of a shepherd is beyond the experience of most urban creatures. For most people, in order to grasp the context of a shepherd or sheep fold/pen, then they would have to Google it. Anyone brought up in the country, however, and such people are increasingly rare, then the dual images that Jesus sets before us are all too familiar. The sheep pen is a place of safety when the shepherd has to sleep, or be somewhere else. It is a barrier against predators, and helps a shepherd's particular sheep have an identity. In our Gospel today - the only parable in John's Gospel - Jesus calls each one by name, and they know his voice. He leads them to fresh pastures; he establishes their safety and well-being. It is not difficult, therefore, to make the connection between a good shepherd and one who leads the flock of God today.

Today is Vocations Sunday, when we focus in particular on raising awareness of the particular vocations in the Church - including marriage. Most importantly, we need to pray for and encourage vocations to the priesthood and diaconate; the religious life and monastic orders. There is a desperate need, however, for more priests: good and holy men of all ages, to shepherd the flock of God today. My day job - as it were - is intimately involved in forming men for the priesthood, in particular their intellectual formation. At the seminary in London where I live and work during the week we have men from the diocese of Westminster, East Anglia, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, and this diocese of Brentwood. They are a handful from each diocese. When we look at the rising age of priests, and do the maths, then you will see that we have a growing crisis on our hands. My personal prayer is twofold: that younger men will have the vision and courage to offer their lives to God in this special way; and that we import missionary priests from countries where the Catholic Faith is vibrant, and the seminaries are full.

Why is there such a shortage? Why is the bishop of my home diocese of Salford closing down 22 churches, and committing over 100 others to amalgamation? Well, the answers are not simple, but one thing at least is evident: we have become complacent and lukewarm. Youth programmes and adult catechesis in regard to vocations are almost non-existent; Catholic schools - in particular secondary schools - have failed to recruit committed Catholic teachers who support the faith across the curriculum; many bishops have become timid in their public ministry, failing to engage with society alongside other leading voices which are hostile to Christianity. Too many young men have only ever seen old men at the altar - particularly in the rural parts of our dioceses. It is not all 'doom and gloom', however, as there are signs in some diocese that vocations to the priesthood are increasing. It will take time to turn the ship around.

Our Holy Father - Pope Francis - has said repeatedly that, 'the shepherd should smell of the sheep', meaning that he should live alongside those whom he serves; his lifestyle should not exceed theirs; he should be where they are, at all the key moments in their lives, and be recognised on the streets and key places of meeting. All animals have a distinctive smell, and sheep are no exception. Those shepherds who spend time with their charges will have their lasting odour about their person. We need priests who will lead the flock to safe pastures: to feed them on Jesus in the sacraments; to the study and contemplation of sacred scripture; to prayer and meditation in all their variety; to visit their homes, hospices, and hospitals when they are sick, dying, and bereaved; to offer retreat and safe places where they can find rest for their souls. A good shepherd will know the balance between leadership and service: two sides of the same coin.

There is one more, and rather obvious point to make. Shepherds look after their sheep: sheep breed sheep. It is primarily your responsibility to grow the flock, to evangelise, to have children and bring them up in the faith of our fathers. It is our joint responsibility - and joy - to nurture vocations in them, which will serve God's Church in a variety of ways. I have focused on the particular ministerial priesthood today, but all of us are priests in one sense by virtue of our baptism. Please pray today for all bishop's and priests, especially for your own parish priest. This week in particular ask God what he is calling you to do in his service, and have the courage to heed and follow that call.

May Our Lady, who sat with the Apostle's on the day of Pentecost, pray for our priests, and keep them close and safe from harm.


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