Friday, 12 May 2017

Good Shepherd Sunday Year A 2017

The statistics for priestly vocation are not encouraging. In other words, more priests are dying than seminarians are joining. Given that the median age for priest (and/or religious)[1] is creeping up and the number of new vocations has stagnated or decreased, a parish with a priest should considered itself blessed. Thus, Vocation Sunday highlights the urgent need to foster more vocations.

In general, for today, parishes or religious congregations may trot out dusty posters and brochures to be put onto notice boards or bulletin racks to encourage youths to take up priestly and/or religious life. A few more enterprising ones might just put on a video or mount an exhibition.

Vocation Sunday is otherwise known as Good Shepherd Sunday. No doubt this is inspired by the Gospel's imagery. The word "pastor" is the Latin equivalent for the English "shepherd" and from which we also derive words like pastoral and pasture. The image of Jesus as the protective Good Shepherd is further augmented by His identification as the Gate Keeper. A sheep-pen or fold does not have a physical gate. Instead, the shepherd sleeps at the entrance to guard it and if necessary to defend the integrity of the sheep fold with His life.

Sadly, in a highly urbanised setting, this pastoral image hardly appeals to a Millennial. Furthermore, it is near impossible to sell the idea of self-sacrifice to an "entitled" Millennial. Indeed, the shortage has rendered the priestly ministry so much more demanding. The social netting that allows for a community to function religiously has disappeared. Take for example, a predominantly Catholic village where children are educated either by the Brothers or the Sisters. A loss of the schools’ Catholic identity corresponds to a loss in shared language. Hence, a priest's ministry is made harder by the effects of secularisation: a pool of poorly catechised Catholics. Some would assert that "hatch, match and dispatch" (baptism, wedding and funeral) are the only occasions of contact that many Catholics have with the Church. This pastoral panorama is made more urgent by a theological restriction. Without the priest, there is no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no Church.

Therefore, what direction should we take if we want to encourage the young to give up their comfort and security in exchange for the challenges of self-sacrifice and hard work?

Firstly, self-sacrifice and hard work aside, there is a need to relook at what notion of priesthood is being put forward. Consider that the Church has always been at the forefront of caring for souls both spiritual and physical. Hospice is a good example of how the Church shows care for the physical body. With the rise of the modern state, the ministry of caring for the body became a state function. Thus, the institution of hospitals, a Catholic gift to civilisation, became an articulation of statecraft. Sadly, what was once a basic human right, through privatisation, has increasingly become a privilege. The more you have, the greater your access to privileges. Across the board, welfare is not reaching whom it is intended for. The gist is this--there is a world hungering for physical or material attention--be it from human trafficking, refugees or the disenfranchised poor. 

Secondly, given that the material concerns are pressing upon us, what is increasingly obvious is that the notion of vocation is shaped by this sociological criterion--to care for the materially impoverished. For example, the Jesuits view their mission in the world as the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. The usual mantra rings true—the rich are getting richer and poor are getting poorer. Thus, there is a humanitarian catastrophe that demands our immediate attention. Justice for the poor is a fundamental option if we want to talk about faith in God.

Let us be clear that the material needs of a human person does have an impact on his spiritual well-being but a merely philanthropic response will restrict the vision of caring for the soul to basically a humanitarian response for the destitute. Necessary as that may be, however, the mission of the Good Shepherd consists of the threefold munera as reflected in the liturgical furnishing of the sanctuary: the chair, the ambo and the altar. The Shepherd not only presides in charity and teaches with conviction but He also sanctifies. However, if the poor are knocking on the door of the Church, it is natural to fall back on that which is more practical. Look after the poor and feed them. We have come to believe that the shortest distance to justice is through advocacy--both through our actions and our words, through our leadership and through our teaching. Furthermore, with the aid of a techno-mechanical mindset, meaning that nature, in our case society, should yield to our industrial might, one can see how compellingly logical liberation theology is for the times we live in. Through careful and efficient ideology, an unjust society can and should give way to a more equitable one.

Given that the notion of the priesthood is largely "functional", its cultic element is easily marginalised. Hiding behind the altar and praying is somewhat "useless" when there are poor people starving. In short, for the priesthood to make sense in this era, the "cultic" nature of the priesthood has to be de-emphasised. In short, the priesthood has to be desacralised.

Perhaps, the axiom lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi can give an indication for further reflexion. The manner the Church prays determines what she believes in and how she ought to live. Instead of worship setting the stage for belief and practical life, what has happened is that, in the conception of priestly vocation, we have reversed the direction whereby sociology or how society is shaped now determines how our priesthood is to be like. Sociology may give a good indication of the state of society but it may not be the best response to what is a theological issue. A good illustration has been the ordination to the diaconate of some men for the function they can perform (sociological), without proper consideration if there truly was a call (theological) in the first place.

The Latin term for a priest is sacerdos and for announcement pertaining to ordination, we use the term "sacerdotal ordination". On top of that, a sacerdos, once ordained, belongs to the "hierarchy". Both sacerdos and hierarchy have for their end: sanctification. Have you ever heard of “pastoral ordination”? And, in the context of the Church's mission, evangelisation, that is, bringing the Gospels to the ends of the world, is not only a ministry of presiding and preaching but also of sanctification--the effect of which is salvation. One can imagine how tempting it must be to regard salvation in earthly term or to confuse liberation with redemption. But, the priesthood given to the Church, even though there is a material element of taking care of the body, is primarily a ministry of saving souls. Thus, the measure of salvation is not efficiency (productivity) but sanctification. This predilection for functionality is indicative of a crisis affecting the Church--a crisis of being and thus, the desacralisation of the priesthood has had a deleterious effect for the Church. The justice we yearn so much for the world arises not from a lack of effort but rather is emblematic of a forgetfulness of sanctity. When we forget that God is holy and our task to emulate Him, then no one is sacred enough for our just consideration.

In summary, vocation to the priesthood is a vocation to the ministry of salvation. The compelling trend is to study society so as to solve the shortage of vocation sharply felt in some sections of the Church. According to current thinking, present ecclesiastical prohibition barring married men and women from ordination just does not make sense. A "contingent" bid to increase vocation, i.e., ordaining married men or women sounds just about right but it misses the mark. We are looking for a sociological response when the more pressing issue is theological. Firstly, the Eucharist as a sacrament of eternal life requires a valid priesthood. Secondly, the teaching of the Church "has remained" Apostolic. [Not "is" because "is" suggests that it can be subject to the shifting sands of whatever ideological winds are blowing].[2] If salvation through the sacraments is still offered, then the need for priestly vocation remains. The shortage of vocation is not caused by a lack in God's calling but rather by a deafness in men's responding.


[1] Vocation Sunday can refer in general to calling for priesthood or priesthood and religious life. Some priests are religious and not all religious are priests. Here, I shall restrict myself to specifically the priestly vocation.
[2] Unless the Church has been wrong since Apostolic times to insist on a male-only priesthood. A case may be made for change. For example, slavery. Gradually the Church came to a realisation that the “imago Dei” extended to all people and not just some. Can this not be applied in the case of universal ordination? Does this question refer to the natural process of change arising from a deeper understanding OR does it pertain to the “identity” of God in whose image we have been created? What is the mind of the Saviour in instituting a male-only hierarchy? Pope Paul II decided that the Church had no authority to change a matter which concerns her divine constitution. We hear this often “imago Dei”, that is, made in the image and likeness of God but an experience we should be familiar with is that man has a tendency to reshape God according to his image.