HOMILY: Take a moment of silence
IT WAS JULY 1992, and I was on a three-week study tour-pilgrimage in the Holy Land. In the middle of a long hike on a scorching day, we came across two shepherds, smoking and chatting in a patch of shade. Their two flocks were all mixed together, hundreds of sheep, lazily rambling the hillsides. The two shepherds were happy to see us, and we began to visit. We asked, through our guide, how the sheep, all jumbled together, would know their rightful shepherd when the time came to move on. The two herdsmen chuckled and rose to take the dare: Each one went to an opposite side of the path, shouted out an indecipherable yell, and began to walk away. Immediately, the sheep ran behind their proper shepherd. And the few stragglers were spotted right away by their vigilant leader and summoned to follow. It was clear: The sheep knew their shepherd; the shepherd knew his sheep.
Ah, but the show was not over. Charged up by the attention of their audience, the shepherds said, “Watch this.” They then exchanged their outer apparel. Once again, they each went to opposite sides of the path, gave their familiar call, and began to walk away. Without a pause, the sheep followed their proper shepherd, even though he had completely changed his outward appearance! The sheep knew their shepherd so well—his voice, his command, his walk—that they could not be deceived by a disguise.
JESUS SAID: “. . . The sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out . . . . he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.”
We gather for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on this Fourth Sunday of Easter, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” designated as well “World Day of Prayer for Vocations.”
We recognize that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, continues to tend to his flock in a variety of very effective and tender ways. For us as Catholics, we also acknowledge that a unique way he shepherds his people is through his priests. In fact, we call our parish priests pastors, which is simply the Latin word for shepherd.
For the past 30 years we have been praying ceaselessly for “an increase in vocations to the priesthood.” Yet, at times it seems the Lord is ignoring our plea, as the data would indicate far too few are responding.
The problem, of course, is hardly that Jesus is not calling; the problem is that we have wax in our ears. The problem is that we are not listening to his voice!
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, like those I met on the hillside of Galilee, gives us the most effective strategy in promoting vocations: We must come to know our shepherd so intimately, his voice so unmistakably, that we sense his call in our gut and follow him.
And I would propose that we best hear the voice of the Good Shepherd in silence. The Bible tells us that the language God prefers is silence, and the atmosphere God best works in is silence. “Be still and know that I am God,” God whispers. “In quiet and confidence shall be thy strength,” God encourages Isaiah.
Each of the seven years I was rector of the North American College in Rome, I had the pleasure of reading 50 or so autobiographies of the men entering. I soon discovered a common thread: Almost all of the men discerned the call to the priesthood in silence. It was often during quiet prayer before the Eucharist; sometimes during a retreat or another period of stillness; maybe during a time of quiet reflection after a pivotal experience or encounter. For some of them, it came in silence on a life-changing episode such as a pilgrimage, service project, or World Youth Day. Never did it come as a shout, as a yell, in a panic, or in a crowd. No, it came gently, softly, quietly, the voice of the Shepherd only to be discerned in silence.
And it came from a person to a person. These young candidates knew their shepherd so well they recognized his soft voice. They had come to know him through wonderful parents and families, vibrant parishes and communities, careful catechesis and uplifting liturgy, service to his neglected, and immersion in his Word, the support of friends and the joy of fellowship, and his Real Presence in the Eucharist and merciful forgiveness in penance. They had come to know this shepherd so well that when, in silence, he whispered, “Come, follow me as a priest,” they recognized him and heard him.
Does it seem too simple? To promote vocations we best promote silence. To hear his voice we must be quiet. To let him talk, we stop talking. Our first vocation, then, is not to priesthood, marriage, religious life, lay ecclesial ministry, deaconate, the single state. No. Our primary vocation is to know Jesus, the Good Shepherd, so well, that when he whispers to us in silence, we will hear his voice and follow his call. Then, we’ll have all the vocations we need.
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