'The Good Shepherd' - Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)

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As many of you I’m sure are aware, all the clergy of the Archdiocese attended the biennial Clergy Plenary last week at White Sands on the East Coast. This event has been occurring now for some thirty years. It is a very valuable time for all the clergy – priests and deacons – 36 in all, to come together for a week and to reflect on key pastoral issues.

This year the Plenary had the theme: Preaching the Word, Celebrating the Sacraments and Gathering the Scattered People of God. This theme was inspired by a description of the ministry of priests in the Second Vatican Council documents. During the week we received some theological input, listened to a number of lay people respond to a questionnaire that had been circulated to parishes, and then discussed the content among ourselves.

It was a very rich encounter and led to many thoughts and ideas as to how we would develop and improve our ministry here in Tasmania. I am sure all left the Plenary renewed in vision and committed to enhancing their ministry.

One very important dimension of the Plenary was that it provided all the clergy with a chance to deepen their relationships with one another. This was particularly important for those who are new to the Archdiocese, especially those who have come from overseas. We also had our newly ordained priest, Fr Paschal Okpon, attend his first Clergy Plenary.

The Archdiocese of Hobart is able to provide priests for all the 27 parishes in Tasmania. Currently five of our parishes have an Assistant Priest. In the next twelve months or so we will have three newly ordained priests available for service in the Archdiocese, so we will be able to offer Assistant Priests to more parishes. And, please God, four seminarians are to be ordained in the year 2020. So we can rejoice in the provision of priests for our immediate future.

I should also mention that the Archdiocese currently has two permanent deacons, one of course we know very well: Nick MacFarlane. But shortly that will be increased by the ordination of Michael Smith from the Kingston parish, and last night I was in the parish to admit him to candidacy for ordination.

This Sunday each year, Good Shepherd Sunday, provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon the ministry of priests in the Church. From the Gospel reading we see that the Lord readily chooses and uses the image of shepherd to describe himself. He presents the example not just of shepherds but of good shepherds to express how he not only sees his own role, but also the role of those exercising pastoral office in the Church. This image is not peculiar only to Christ’s teaching, as it is a very rich theme in the Old Testament. We know very well the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd.”

The Lord speaks of the attitudes and actions of a good shepherd, an image that would have been very familiar to the people both from their daily experience and from their spiritual tradition. From the Gospel today we can identify four distinguishing aspects of being a good shepherd.

Firstly, no doubt conscious of his own fate, the Lord says that the good shepherd is prepared to lay down his life for his sheep. The good shepherd will always have the good of the sheep consciously in his mind. The good shepherd will always be willing to sacrifice himself for the sheep. It reflects for us the willingness of a pastor to offer his life in dedicated and humble service of the people. I see this witnessed to in so many ways in the lives of the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese.

Secondly, the Lord says that a good shepherd will know his sheep. They are not objects, but persons. He will know them personally and they will know him personally. The good shepherd will have, as Pope Francis describes, “the smell of the sheep”, because a true pastor lives close to, and in daily contact with, his flock. Again, I see this attribute reflected of the lives and ministry of the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese.

Thirdly, the Lord mentions that the good shepherd has the role of gathering the sheep into one flock. Our Christian life is a life lived in communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith. Christianity is not just a private relationship with God, but one which is deeply incarnated within the life of the Christian community. We “belong to one another” as St Paul says. The priest is the pastor of the parish community which is the way in which Catholics live out their faith. Priests work steadily to foster and build up community life in their parishes.

Fourthly, the Lord speaks of those who are not of the fold: “These I have to lead as well,” he says. The good shepherd is one who is always on the look-out for the stray and for those who are lost and wandering. Priests know that their task is to be missionary. They are to always be on the look-out for someone that they can help come to faith and embrace the Catholic way of life.

In speaking today about the ministry of priests I am deeply conscious of this moment in our history. There are particular forces at work in our society - the winds of secularisation, the abandonment of the Christian underpinning of our society, and the exposure of the serious failings of the Church in the area of sexual abuse. Many people have become very critical of the Church and especially of those in leadership. It is a difficult time for priests. There are pressures being applied to change the structures of leadership in the Church.

This, I believe, is a time of purification for the Church. This is good and necessary, though very painful at times. We are being humbled, but this is salutary. We will emerge, I believe, a better Church from this time of testing. Now we must walk a path of steady fidelity in the faith allowing ourselves to be inwardly purified and strengthened.

So I ask you to pray for your priests and deacons, and I ask you to affirm and encourage them that they may be the good shepherds that they long to be: good shepherds after the heart of Christ, who is the Good Shepherd.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday, 22 April 2018
 

To listen to an audio recording of Archbishop Julian's homily, click here:

https://soundcloud.com/archdiocese-of-hobart/the-good-shepherd