The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is an important one for our faith. It reminds us that, though he died for the whole human race, Jesus does not see us simply as a body of people.
No, he loves each of us personally. He cares about our problems, and wants to support each of us in our daily lives.
In Jesus’ time, a shepherd cared for a small flock of sheep. He knew each of them individually: they knew his voice [cf John 10:27]. Jesus called himself the ‘Good Shepherd’ because he would lay down his life for his sheep [John 10:11].
The Church today focuses particularly on one way he seeks to care for his followers – through priests. In our Diocese, we are becoming seriously short of priests. Today, I am asking each of you personally to do what you can do to help change this situation.
Let us recall briefly why we need priests.
Jesus cared personally for his followers
The starting point for any understanding of why we need priests is to recall that Jesus has cared for his followers personally from the beginning. There are many examples in the Gospels.
One is where Jesus was concerned that this Apostles rest after teaching about him around the country-side. On their return, he told them [Mark 6:31]:
Come away to some lonely place by yourselves, and rest a while.
Jesus Cares personally for his followers today
We are Jesus’ followers today. Like the Apostles, he calls us too to teach others about him. We received Baptism and Confirmation to empower us to do this.
Indeed, the basic reason why our parish communities exist is so that each member will play his or her part towards leading others in our towns and cities to pray, to worship and to live as Jesus taught. These others may include family members, neighbours, friends, fellow-workers and fellow bowling or sports club members. They include young and old, the well and the sick.
Being a Christian can be challenging
Teaching others about Jesus and his Gospel can be challenging. Social and other pressures can make us embarrassed about revealing our faith. We are all conscious of personal weaknesses and temptations. None of us lives perfectly as Jesus taught: for each of us, there is further to go towards becoming like Jesus.
But Jesus calls only for our best efforts, not perfection. This is clear from his last appearance to his Apostles. He told them to spread his Gospel to all nations, even though some were still hesitant about believing in him [Matthew 28:17]:
When they saw him they fell down before him, though some hesitated.
To care personally for us Jesus called the Apostles
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, understands the temptations and pressures we are experiencing today. And scandals we have all learned about over the past decade have been distressing.
To care for us, two thousand years ago Jesus called the Twelve Apostles. Through them, he intended to continue to care for all his followers personally after his Ascension.
So that he could act through them, Jesus gave the Apostles special spiritual gifts. The power to consecrate the Eucharist is one example. When an Apostle celebrated the Eucharist, it was Jesus who changed bread and wine into his Body and Blood. It was he who nourished his followers through Holy Communion.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders
Jesus planned to care for his followers personally in every future generation also, and in every part of the world. This is why the Apostles handed on their special spiritual gifts to others, as Jesus intended, through what we now call the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Those ordained are now called Bishops, priests and deacons. These share the gifts Jesus first gave the Apostles in different degrees. Today, we are especially concerned about priests.
How Jesus cares personally through priests
To support his followers in the Diocese of Bunbury, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has called some to serve us as his priests. He has even called some from other countries. We appreciate our priests as signs of the extent of the desire of Jesus to love each of us personally.
Through the spiritual gifts he has given our priests, Jesus seeks to help us understand his teachings, and how they can help our lives. He seeks to guide us towards true values in today’s world of confusing values.
Again, through our priests, Jesus seeks to help us through his sacraments, to live holy lives. In this way, he draws us closer to God, the source of all blessings. Through priests, Jesus provides the Eucharist and forgives our sins. He helps us in our sufferings when we are sick or elderly, and supports us when we are dying.
Through our priests, Jesus wants to be with us, too, in times of grief, and to strengthen us when life seems overwhelming. He wants to help us to pray, and to draw closer to God.
Finally, through our priests, Jesus seeks to build up our parishes, which are first and foremost, spiritual communities. He wants them to grow in Christian love, and to reach out to others – including members who no longer take part in Sunday worship.
The declining number of priests
The hope of Jesus, our Good Shepherd, is to care personally for every Catholic in the Bunbury Diocese through a priest. However, the number of priests in our Diocese has been declining, and yet we need even more priests to serve new parishes in growing areas.
Unless we all work to change the current situation, the gradual decline in the number of our priests over recent years will continue. There will be less priests available to our parishes. The hope of Jesus will not be fulfilled.
Many factors are contributing to this decline. Many today, for example, imagine they can live happy lives long term without God. Social trends commonly ignore the spiritual and the religious in human nature. Values which God warns will lead eventually to unhappiness are fashionable.
Then again, an exaggerated importance often is given to money and material things. And scandals, too, particularly the abuse of children in the past by between an estimated half to one percent of priests, have had an impact.
Called to serve like Jesus
Priests are called to live simple lives, like Jesus. They are called to live lives of selfless service, and to be available to all. Yet, for those called to it, this life brings great personal fulfilment and deep happiness.
Also, Jesus by his own life and example, revealed celibate love as a new expression of love that, like the Sacrament of Marriage, is a gift of the Holy Spirit [1 Corinthians 7:7]. Normally, those called to be priests received this gift at Baptism.
Many today confuse this expression of love – celibate love – with the single or unmarried life-style. In fact, celibate love is the expression of love Jesus himself lived, a love that reflects the openness of God’s love for all.
Like married love, celibate love needs to be worked at. Otherwise it does not grow. And, as with marriage, this growth is necessary for faithfulness.
What we can do?
A shortage of priests will be everyone’s problem. Let us all do what we can to reverse the present situation. I suggest four ways.
Pray for priests as Jesus Commanded
The first thing we need to do to reverse the present situation is to pray more for priests. Jesus commanded this when he said [Matthew 9:37]:
… ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest.
Every parish and Mass Centre community needs to pray for more priests for our Diocese regularly during Sunday Mass, especially the Prayer of the Faithful, or in their Holy Communion Service when no priest is available. Any parish that does not obey this command of Jesus will not be able to complain if no one from its midst becomes a priest, and its service by a priest is reduced because of the decline in priest numbers.
Each of us also needs to pray personally for more priests. Many parishioners are retired, and so surely can make time for serious prayer. Please, let us all do what we can.
Of special importance is the Rosary. We only need to think of the Mooney family in the early years of a priest-less Western Australia, climbing Mount Clarence near Albany each Sunday to pray the Rosary for a priest.
This prayer, given by Mary, has proven very powerful over the centuries. It is a prayer shown to move hearts. The Rosary can move hearts to want to love Christ and of others as priests.
Encourage those with suitable qualities
Many priests, like Old Testament prophets, have been moved to think about this calling by the words of others, even in their early years. Family or friends have said: ‘I think you have the qualities to be a priest’; ‘You would make a good priest’.
Someone called to priesthood will have faith, health, and will be able to relate with others. He will show a capacity for selfless service, and be interested in helping others. He will be inclined to question what society presents as happiness, and want to help others discover true values and lasting happiness.
Someone called to be a priest will not be perfect, but trying to live as Jesus taught. It is from his own daily personal struggles that Jesus will teach him how to help others live the Christian message.
Someone interested in becoming a priest will have had some experience of life before entering a seminary. Normally, he will be at least in his twenties.
Do you know someone needing new direction?
It is a sad truth that people who fail to follow God’s purpose for their lives become confused, and never find fulfilment. Their personal gifts remain immature. Today, among those who experience confusion and lack of direction, some would have to be young men who are not following a call to priesthood.
If you are the parent or Godparent of a confused young man, there may be nothing to lose by suggesting he consider priesthood. If his purpose is to become a priest, he will never find real personal fulfilment in any other role.
Explain the basic purpose of priests to others
Many today do not really know why Jesus calls some to be priests. They do not understand the ordained priesthood. And many do not appreciate the desire to care for and support every Christian personally.
We all need to help others understand the priesthood, particularly the young. Otherwise they will not appreciate this sign of Christ’s personal love for his followers. And those who may be called to be priests may lack the understanding needed to recognise their calling.
Let us thank our priests
In conclusion, let us thank our priests for giving their lives to Jesus for us. Perhaps we need to think back to the priests who have brought blessings into our own lives. It is all too easy to take Jesus for granted, and we can do the same with our priests.
Let us pray for more priests to join those who serve us now. And let us encourage young men to think about this calling so that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, will be able to care for us as he wants.
Most Reverend Gerard J Holohan
Bishop of Bunbury
2 May 2004