Sunday, 3 May 2020

Good Shepherd Sunday 2020

Since Easter we have been hearing from John’s Gospel. The exception was last week when we made a Lucan detour trailing the two Disciples who walked to Emmaus. John’s Gospel is theologically descriptive because he employs various images such as the Light of the world or the Bread of eternal life to portray Jesus. The prevailing portrait this Sunday is pastoral as Christ is painted as the Good Shepherd as well as the Gate of the sheepfold. This ovine outline lends itself to what today is commonly called Vocation Sunday. Is it time to wax lyrical about the call to priestly and/or religious life?

How are the images of the shepherd and the gate related specifically to the call of priestly and/or religious life?

Firstly, it makes sense economically for a few shepherds to share an enclosure. Secondly, the shepherd is also the gate to the sheepfold because he sleeps at the entrance to protect the sheep in the enclosure from being raided. Since space sharing is economical, each sheep must know the voice of its shepherd. Thirdly, according to Jesus, the sheep that enters the sheepfold will be saved. And not only that, the sheep can come and go—a freedom which not given to the sheep that enter via the gate of the Northern Wall. They go through a one-way street in order to be sacrificed. Furthermore, in addition to salvation and freedom, the sheep that belong to Jesus will find pasture and plenty.

This idea of the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is central to the image of Christ the Good Shepherd. He does not only do it of Himself. In fact, He made sure that this vocation continues in His Church. But we know of late that this vocation has been tainted. As He Himself criticised the pharisees and the scribes for their lack of love for the flock, many of those who follow Him have fallen short. However, it does not invalidate this sacred service which He has left behind for His Church. The vocation is still central to the definition of what it means to be Church. As the Second Reading hints, the invitation for sheep that strayed to return to the fold applies as much to the shepherds who pastors in the name of Christ.

The voice of the shepherd is indeed important for the sheep. The pandemic provides much to think about the voice that the sheep need to hear. So many weeks have gone by without the public celebration of the Eucharist. Of course, there have been numerous attempts to maintain a virtual link with the community. Still it remains that without a physical congregation what use is there for the shepherd? Using the analogy of Pope Francis, virtual connexion is no substitute for “priests as shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”. If anything, the voice of the shepherds is mainly drowned by other louder voices.

At least two phenomena can be observed in this current pandemic with regard to what sort of voice we are hearing. Firstly, in the name of self-preservation, groupthink has shaped our social, or better still, corralled our behaviour. Media has helped very much in this. We would like to believe that an individual is free to act but at its crassest, we have seen how easily media can convert innocent bystanders into a mob. If it does not, then it is certainly co-opted into publicly shaming the so-called “covidiots” so as to produce behaviour that is in accord with the accepted sensibility. For example, as long as one steps out into the public domain, one needs to wear a face mask. Otherwise, one may find oneself in the centre of a viral outrage for non-compliance. It is not freedom but fear that determine one’s conduct.

Furthermore, the pandemic has widen the space for one dominant voice to emerge. It is the age of the expert where the view of the technocrat dictates. Experts are important because they have the know-how. But, we can be easily cowed by the specialist, as it were, forgetting that they are also human and can be limited by their prejudices or self-interests. In any case, experts abound as Google has turned everyone into an authority on any subject matter. Today, everyone is a prime minister, president or pope.[1]

Perhaps what might interest believers is if experts were to predict that this pandemic is here to stay, for the vaccine will not be available for the next two years. Virtual community is the only possible way of ensuring that the health system can cope with the infection. Society is somewhat doomed. On the one hand, this hypothetical prediction sounds too dystopian and even far-fetched as evident by the push to ease the MCO here or lockdown elsewhere. Somehow, we do not quite believe that the situation can be that dire. On the other hand, in not so many words, economic gurus are pointing negative growth and predicting the collapse of the world economy. Plus, scientists push a view that the new normal of social distancing is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

The question to ask is where, in this cacophony of competing ideologies, does the voice of the shepherds come in? In this hyperconnected world where viral outrage coupled with online shaming has become an accepted form of behavioural control, will and can the voice of the Good Shepherd be heard? Is there a distinction between expertise and wisdom or have we confused technique with intuition? It is not that knowledge and insight are mutually exclusive but shepherds of the Good Shepherd serve a truth which extends beyond this mortal domain. This question prompts us to appreciate the requirement that the shepherds that Christ has placed in His Church be those who truly know His voice. As God through the Prophet Jeremiah (3:15) tells us, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, and these shall feed you on knowledge and discretion”—this knowledge and discretion can only come through prayer and long hours of praying. This prolonged isolation only heightens this awareness.

Yesterday, we celebrated St Athanasius. He was exiled 5 times over a period of 17 years from the See of Alexandria for which he was bishop for 45 years. He was known as Athanasius contra mundum—Athanasius against the world. Despite the powers of the world (successive Arian-leaning Emperors) shouting down at him, he stood firm in the defence of Christ’s divinity. By no means, Athanasius contra mundum is a suggestion that shepherds of the Church should take a stance against the world. Waxing lyrical this is not but rather, in the discharge of his duty, the shepherd sometimes will have to stand alone and even be hated for echoing the voice of the Good Shepherd. In an environment that is overwhelmed by the fear of death, it is as if, he must speak from beyond the tomb or from beyond the grave using a vocabulary of hope that both articulates the joy of the Resurrection and the beatitude of eternity. Thus, this vocation to the priestly/religious life must not preclude the possibility that one’s life can be lost in the service of the Good Shepherd and His sheepfold.

“Come! Follow me” is not an invitation to a life of luxury but to embrace a loneliness whose reward is not found in this world. It is not a vocation nobler than the service of marriage because married couples also suffer loneliness. But, as St JPII reminds us: “A priest is a man who offers his whole humanity to God so that God might use him as an instrument of salvation.” This is a vocation necessary for Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of all mankind. Besieged by pandemic panic that tries so hard to ignore God, to be a presence of the Good Shepherd is to be a sign of contradiction—not of fear but of courage, not of despair but of hope, not of death eternal but of life everlasting.


[1] It is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is a cognitive bias (that is, systematic error in thinking that affects people’s decisions and judgements) in which people believe that they are smarter and more capable than they really are. Essentially, it means people over-estimate their capabilities.