Those of us who watch Countryfile on Sunday evenings – or any other programme about sheep farming – know only too well that shepherds do not always do what the sheep want. They chase them around with sheepdogs to make sure they go to the right place, they grab them and turn them upside down to worm them and give them injections; and – if you are a human sheep as you and I are – Jesus the Shepherd insists on going off to look after the one sheep that has strayed apparently ignoring the 99 of us who are safe in the sheepfold! (Matthew 18:12)
Yes, Jesus, the shepherd, as we heard in the Gospel (John 10:27-30) does look after us sheep for he “gives us eternal life”, but this doesn’t mean he gives us an easy life, does it? Nor does he always do what we want. Our 1st Reading (Acts 13:14.43-52) shows how angry people can get when God, or his representatives, act in a way they do not like. Two of the shepherds of Jesus, Paul and Barnabas, start preaching things that those who already follow God do not like, and then they start talking to pagans –shock – horror – and encouraging them to become Christians!
It’s the same today you know. A good priest will always get criticised by some of the faithful who are in church every Sunday because he doesn’t spend enough time looking after them, or doesn’t look after them in the way they would like. Jesus says in a passage that occurs just before today’s Gospel (John 10:16) that he has “other sheep” that he must look after as well, and a good priest will always be doing this. Many of you will see any good priest after Mass on Sunday welcoming people who are not regulars. Maybe they are faithful Catholics visiting from somewhere else, in which case he is being a good host; but maybe they are people trying out Mass for the first time, or after a long time away, and then his welcome can be a vital part of bringing them into full contact with Jesus. who is Shepherd of all men and women whatever they are like.
In fact, the priest also has the job, not only of welcoming people like this, but trying to persuade you, the faithful sheep, to go out of your way to do the same. Here at St Peter’s many of you are very good at this, and I often see you identifying and greeting people you do not know, but there is always a tendency amongst all of us, to want to chat to people we know well. In this way, although we may not mean to ignore visitors and strangers, we can actually leave them out in the cold ; and I have seen that happen here at St Peter’s too! Ask me for an example if you don’t believe me!
Our new Pope Francis has been speaking out boldly on this subject this week. He urged bishops to adopt a missionary ministry, so that the Church does not sicken “from the stale air of closed rooms.” The Pope went on to say that the Church typically suffers from being self-referential, of only looking to and relying on itself. He spoke of a “narcissism that leads to a routine spirituality and convoluted clericalism” and prevents people from experiencing “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelisation.” Evangelisation, of course, does not just mean welcoming people at Mass, it also means finding ways of sharing our faith with others in all sorts of situations in our daily life.
This is why I send out my Homilies by email and on the Blog and Facebook so that as many people as possible out there can hear about the Cathoiic faith. It’s why I concentrate my visiting on those who are not often at Mass on Sunday – those preparing for Baptism or Marriage or for the Funeral of a loved one. It’s why the ministry of Deacon Chris and other Hospital Chaplains is so vital. It’s at important times like these that people who have drifted away from the Church find their way back, and we have a duty and obligation to go out to them and not simply expect them to come to us. The Priest who tells people off for not being at Mass is missing the point. The Carrot is more powerful than the Stick!
The Church is not a club for like-minded people, and when we behave as if it is, when we expect the priest to spend all his time looking after those who are regularly at Mass, we have missed the point. But remember, if you want to talk to your priest about something, then ask him. Do not wait for him to talk to you! Do not look on and complain that he is talking to someone else. To do so is to miss the point. If you cannot catch him after Mass on Sunday, then phone or email him and ask to see him, and if he refuses, contact his Bishop! The priest is a shepherd not a boss, and he is not doing his job well if he refuses to respond to genuine requests for a talk about whatever it is that concerns you. Above all, pray for your priests and deacons, and pray that more young men may respond to the call to be priests so that the work may continue to grow and more and more people may know the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.