By Father John Cush, STD
IN THE DIOCESE OF ROME, this fourth Sunday of Easter is what traditionally is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” This is the Sunday when the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, ordains men to the priesthood.
In the past, under Pope St. John Paul II, for instance, this was a large number of men ordained to the priesthood, from religious orders as well as from dioceses all around the world, including, of course, men from the Diocese of Rome itself.
The image of the Good Shepherd is one that is naturally associated with the Lord Jesus, the One, True, High Priest, in whose priesthood all of us who are baptized share. But the Lord calls some men to serve in the ministerial priesthood, to be sacramentally ordained for service of God’s Holy Church. This past year, when we read about the priesthood and the episcopacy in the press, the image that might be evoked is not necessarily that of the Good Shepherd, but that of the hired hand, the one who runs away when the sheep are threatened.
This sad reality is that the betrayal of the sacred office of Priesthood and Episcopacy by a few has tarnished the image of who and what the priest and bishop is called to be – the Good Shepherd whom the Lord describes in John’s Gospel.
As a formator and a professor in a major seminary, I am edified by the selflessness of the men whom I encounter who are discerning their call to the priesthood. They are dedicated men, striving for holiness and integrity of life, and I truly believe that they will be godly men, in the best sense of that word, meaning this – men who have made God and His Church the center of their life. They will, in turn, be striving to be witnesses to the People of God of the Lord’s presence in the world, leading them by preaching and teaching, caring for them by prudent care of the Church, and, most of all, sanctifying them through the administration of the sacraments. The priest is called to engage fully in the triple munera of the priesthood – to teach, to administer, and to sanctify. He is called to be the bearer of that gracious mystery who is God.
The Lord is still calling men to the priesthood, even in this age when the faults and sins of some priests have so clearly come to life. We are blessed with many programs to promote vocations to the priesthood. One essential element is the role of the family, that “first seminary,” as Pope St. John Paul II called it in his document “Familaris Consortio.” We will have holy priests in the future if we have families that are encouraging and striving to be holy. We will have holy priests in the future if the parish, that essential seed-bed of faith, prays and encourages young men to truly consider a priestly vocation.
Above all, if we want vocations, we must have priests who are themselves happy, healthy and holy. In 1997, in an interview with U.S. Catholic, Bishop Robert E. Barron, then a professor at Mundelein Seminary in the Archdiocese of Chicago, was asked what a priestly vocation should look like. He responded:
“A quick answer is someone of great soul. Someone who is magnanimous in the literal sense: magna anima, having a big soul. Someone who is in touch with human compassion, with love, with justice. Someone in touch with that deepest part of himself and others, and who lives and breathes the great culture that feeds the soul.”
Twenty-two years after that interview, it is still true. We need men with great soul. The priest has to be the man who stands in the midst of the people with whom God has blessed him to serve as the model of the mystery bearer. Never lose sight that God himself is that gracious mystery. Father Barron in this interview continued, gave a practical example of how the priest is to live:
“To live a life of a mystery bearer is to make a commitment at the level of your behavior – your lifestyle and it involves those questions of celibacy and simplicity. It can’t just be a disembodied intellectual exercise. It means I make a commitment of my life, and I’m going to live stubbornly in the presence of the mystery. That means attending to all that language about poverty and asceticism that the spiritual teachers insist upon.”
The bishop who ordained me to priesthood was Thomas Vose Daily. He was a very large man and I still remember the sheer size of his hands when I placed them in his at my priestly ordination. The Bishop, a hockey and football player in his youth, enveloped my hands into his and asked if I promise respect and obedience to him and his successors. He then took the Oil of Chrism and drenched every single inch of my hands, consecrating my hands, setting them apart for the holy things for God’s holy people. The Bishop time and again would reiterate to us seminarians, “Sometimes holiness is trying to be holy; sometimes the desire for prayer is prayer itself.” If the priest wants to inspire more vocations to the priesthood, then he has to be striving for holiness himself.
On this Good Shepherd Sunday, pray for your shepherds, your priests and bishops, that they may indeed be good and holy and that, in their service to God’s people, they may strive by words and deeds to sanctify the Bride of Christ, the Church, in the service of Christ, the Bridegroom.
Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter
Father Cush, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, serves as Academic Dean of the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City-State and as a professor of Theology and Church History at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.