Raica - Good Shepherd

By Bishop Steven J. Raica

The courage to listen and follow - Good Shepherd Sunday

On May 8, Bishop Raica marked the fourth Sunday of Easter with Mass at the Cathedral of St. Paul. The complete text of his homily follows herein.

Dear friends, again, I welcome all those who come to the cathedral today and who have completed their sacraments of initiation and entered the Church, especially at the Easter Vigil. This period after Easter is called “mystagogy” or a time of reflecting on what has just occurred to you. It’s a time to take concrete steps in becoming vibrant active members of your respective faith communities. Today, we welcome you in a particular way to the Cathedral of St. Paul, the mother church of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama and, in a sense, the diocesan parish church where we welcome many people who come from all over the diocese and even from afar. For those who are new, this Cathedral church, while it functions as a downtown parish, has a broader ministry to everyone throughout the diocese. It is a focal point, a reference point where the bishop, as the pastor of the diocese, presides in his official capacity. Thus, we have the chair,  called a cathedra, from where the bishop teaches and from which the cathedral gets its name – the church with the chair, the chair of the bishop, the chief pastor / shepherd.

Today is also Mother’s Day and we wish those present and on livestream a very blessed celebration of this day as the various motherly roles are fulfilled in the fostering, protection, and preservation of all of life. We entrust all to maternal care of our Blessed Mother and Holy Mother Church who aid our spiritual well-being.

As I was growing up, there was a very popular program on TV called Candid Camera. Remember, as a youngster, the village where I lived, had only one active TV channel in black and white. There were 13 channels on the dial, but we had only one channel that worked. Those who were fortunate to have cable received four channels. Candid Camera was a novel program at the time, utilizing hidden cameras to catch folks unaware of what was happening to them. Now there are various spin off shows using similar methods. Its strategy was to plan a certain activity to catch a “victim” or “mark” unaware through hidden microphones and cameras, so we could watch their reaction. Week after week we saw talking mailboxes, cars without engines, put-upon sales clerks, or moving bowling pins.

One early episode I recall was a recorded interview with a young man with a job-placement officer. He was trying to sort out his career path. The young man resided in a large urban environment and was being given the results of a “job-aptitude” test he had taken. As the hidden camera focused on his face to catch his reaction, he was told, in all seriousness, that the only occupation for which he was most aptly suited was to become a “shepherd.” His jaw dropped, his brow furrowed, and his face became quite bewildered. There’s something quite incongruous, even laughable, about shepherding in our urbanized modern society today. At least, I’m not aware of any parishioners who have indicated on their parish census form that their primary occupation is “shepherd,” nor am I aware of anyone preparing for this type of primary work today to support themselves or a family, nor is it a major at any of our universities.

At the time of our Lord, however, it was a different story. Here are some of the qualities that made this occupation an important profession, connecting it with Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

There are different meanings of the word “shepherd” just as some cultures have different meanings for the word “snow” or “corn” or “bananas.” “To shepherd” in very broad terms means “to observe keenly; to watch with utmost attention; to be on one’s guard, alerted to and prepared for imminent danger; to analyze, look ahead, and plan.”

So, “shepherd” has the connotation to be “wide awake, watchful, reading and planning, caring and careful.” Such a person is dedicated – a person who lives with and knows his charges – and they know him! Such a person is valiant, certainly not cowardly or shy; he is willing and able to employ his strength to protect and defend.

Dedicated and courageous, a shepherd is one entrusted with economic responsibility as though it were an extension of himself. Herds and livestock, part of the owner’s capital, were entrusted to this individual to be cared for and protected, if necessary, with his very life.

Unlike a generic shepherd, Jesus is identified as the Good Shepherd – one who gives His life and offers life, eternal life, in return. Rather than being merely impersonal, our Lord knows us each by name! We belong to Him. Knowing that anything we do by ourselves is insufficient, we turn to the One who brought us into being and loves us to the end. It is this voice that we hear and seek to follow.

The important point is this: Are we taking time to listen to the voice of Jesus – the Good Shepherd? What is our Lord telling us? I believe it is the same words He used with the Apostles and disciples almost 2,000 years ago: “Come, follow me!” If we do, where will we be led? We shall be led to a place where we will never know hunger and thirst. We will be given the bread of life and “life giving water,” and every tear from our eyes will be wiped away.

On this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, the Good Shepherd is still active and visible in our midst. The title of shepherd may not appear on any list of possible occupations in our society today, but we do have others who assume significant parts of that role – mothers and fathers, teachers, clergy and religious, law enforcement, judges, to name a few. The very title begs for a certain confidence and trust. When that trust has been breached, we run the risk of scattering everyone again. We need good leaders today – good leaders, good shepherds.

I recall seeing a parish bulletin cover from up north where the parish titles were given. It stated simply: “Pastor: Christ the Good Shepherd; Fr. Joe, His faithful sheepdog.” Sometimes I feel like that, trying to keep everyone headed in the right direction and catching those who are straying, lagging behind, or trying to second guess where we are going.

Today we listen. What is Christ calling forth in our lives? What are we being challenged to do? And more importantly, what are we to become? 

As we can tell from the first reading, the early believers in Jesus – the early Church – was not easy. There were challenges, there was unfair treatment by other religious leaders and society, there was misunderstanding among members. Not all the early members were known as “saints.” What kept them all together was not a popularity contest among leaders or the prevailing cultural or political view of life. It was the experience of Christ, risen and in their midst – a presence that was greater than any of their failings, greater than the view that society had for them, greater than any reduction to their humanity. They heard Christ preached to them as the one who gives them the possibility of life and the possibility of radical change that could occur in their lives such that there would be no turning back. 

Oftentimes, on this Good Shepherd Sunday, a vocational theme is baked into our thoughts. For our young people, listen! You may be hearing God’s call to follow Him as a priest, religious sister or brother, a husband or wife, a parent. It is not infrequent that your life’s project, career, vocation, whatever you want to call it, is considerably different than your course of studies and the degree you obtained at university or the job you started out with in life. So, I urge you: “Listen carefully!”

In this Eucharist we share today, we, too, are called and blessed: “Happy are those who are called to His supper!” “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” Blessed are those who follow the voice that continues to make known the presence of God. We live for something happening now which enables us to experience a new hope and a new joy beyond our imagining and dreams. Hearing that Word, hearing Christ Himself speak to us, we follow to attain the life that we long for. He’s the only one who can deliver on this promise and claim of eternal life for those courageous enough to listen and follow. With you, in this cathedral, I seek to follow Christ, our Good Shepherd, and listen to His voice.