Today we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Today’s Feast is sometimes called “Good Shepherd or Vocation Sunday.” Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are far from clear for many people if not most people. As such, these vocations have often been ruled out as possible options in life for many young men and women, sadly out of ignorance and the distorted views of what these vocations are about. Within the limited time I have in this homily, I will try to clarify some of these distorted views.
A vocation is a calling from God to live a certain way of life that is committed, total and unconditional; out of love for God. This permanent commitment is made in marriage when a person says, “for better or for worse, in health or in sickness, in riches or in poverty, till death do us part, I take you so-and-so to be my spouse.” Likewise, in a religious profession like that of a Jesuit novice, he prays, “I vow perpetual poverty, chastity and obedience . . . and I promise to enter the Society of Jesus to lead my entire life in it . . . and the like.”
Such permanent and unconditional commitments are sacred because they are made between the spouses and with God in marriage, and between the religious, the religious Order and God, in a religious vocation. In such a commitment of a vocation, the relationships are bound by God, blessed by God, dependent on God and entered into out of love for God. A vocation is a calling by God to enter into an intimate relationship with Him.
The meaning of our relationship with God becomes clearer when we first reflect on what human relationships are like. When a person falls in love with someone everything changes; we are transformed by the person we love, our whole life is centered on and built on the person we love. Such deep experiences are probably, most evident during courtships, honeymoons and better still in a mature committed married relationship that have lasted for many years. Such relationships do exists also in our love for our parents, families and the like.
However, the deepest of all relationships is our human relationship with God. When we experience God to be personal and intimate, we call such experiences “spiritual consolations.” Such relationships with God can be so deep and transforming that we willingly and happily give up everything we have and own just so that we can love God more fully and wholeheartedly.
Our spiritual consolations can be so deep and mature and thus real that our deepest desires are only to have a relationship with God that is possessed by His Love; a relationship that draws us to be like Christ and to follow Him for life; even to die for Him. This reality of the power of our relationship with God is clearly witnessed in holy people like our late Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, and more so in the martyrs of our Church. During the funeral Mass of our late Pope John Paul II the crowd chanted, “Santo Subito! Santo Subito!” which mean, “a saint now!” “make him a saint now! “a saint in our midst” for several minutes . . . while at the same time cheering our late Pope with their rhythmic clapping . . . This moving scene touched the hearts of millions of people all over the world, including myself, and move us to tears.
Yes, when we are confronted with holiness, we simply cannot resist and cannot deny the voice of the Holy Spirit, in this case, chanting the holiness of our late Pope who had done so much for the Church and the world. In 1989, six Jesuits were martyred in San Salvador for speaking out against injustice and in the defense of the voiceless and powerless poor who were exploited. When our Superior General appealed to the Jesuits to replace such men in the important mission, more than fifty Jesuits responded willingly, even though they were cautioned that their own lives were at stake in such a dangerous mission. When there is love for God, there is no fear. We are even willing to face death, if God gives us the graces because to die for Christ is to return to the very Source of our lives – God Himself.
St Peter before the Good Shepherd
You may say, “Well and good for such great Jesuits who are willing to be martyred. What about those who are not so edifying in their witness? Well, I would first say, without trying to justify their wrongs, for a wrong is still a wrong, is that nobody is perfect. Jesus chose St Peter to be the head of His Apostles even though he denied Him. Jesus saw something in Peter that He could tap on for the service of His Kingdom. A Jesuit is defined as “a sinner, yet called by God.” We should try to look at the good the person is doing and that in spite of his imperfections, there is still much goodness in him that God sees and wants to use for the service of His Kingdom.
If we want to look at what a married vocation is about, we should not look at failed married relationships and broken marriages. If we constantly look at the tragedies of car accidents in the newspapers and are terrified of them, we would one day not even dare to leave our homes or enter into any vehicles.
And so, with a positive attitude, when I felt the promptings of the Holy Spirit urging me, to make a long story short, to join the Society of Jesus, I knew I had to take concrete steps and decisions towards responding to God’s Will. I knew I had to resign from my job, finish my examinations, contact the bishops and priests to discern my vocation more fully. In short, I eventually joined the priesthood vocation of the Jesuit Order.
Fr Paul Goh, S.J., Fr Phlip Heng, S.J.(centre), Fr Colin Tan,S.J. celebrating the Eucharist at All Night Vigil to pray for Vocations on Sat 12 April 2008 at Jesuit Novitiate
Twenty five years have passed since I took my vows as a novice and eleven and a half years have passed since my final profession, in December 1996. How has my religious vocation been, some of you may wish to know. Well, I feel very blessed by God. I feel totally grateful to Him for His Love, Goodness and Mercy on me. It is with deep gratitude in my heart to this personal God that keeps me loving and serving Him daily.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ image of Himself as the “Good Shepherd” is a very powerful apt and image that in many ways capture what our religious life and vocation is about. In the Gospels, “shepherds” are the poorest of the poor; they may not even have any legal rights under Jewish Laws of the time. They have no possessions except their sheep. Thus, they provide and protect their sheep as their most priceless possessions; they knew every single sheep they owned and even called them by name. Their sheep recognized their Master’s voice and followed him at all times and not the voices of strangers.
Jesus in today’s Gospel, being the “Good Shepherd” loves us infinitely more than these shepherds of Israel. Jesus as “Good Shepherd” loves us personally and intimately to the point of laying down His life for us. He knows us each by name. He protects us when we are in danger, and He would search us and longs to find us when we lose our way though our sinful ways. Jesus tells us that He goes ahead of us and we are to follow His voice for He will lead us to green pastures which eventually would lead us to the divine meadow of eternal life.
So, when we respond to God’s call we are not doing God a favour. We are also not simply only saying “yes” to serving Him. We are indeed (as I said earlier) entering into a committed relationship with Him. God’s calling is His blessings on us and this can be seen in the millions of people who have responded happily and willingly to His call. God’s blessings too is very evident and powerfully seen in the thousands upon thousands who have died for their faith and vocation happily.
Yesterday morning, the Jesuit novices and I had a brief sharing of today’s Gospel. One of the novices shared that when he was working in the secular and commercial world, he had to wear “masks” in order to protect himself and keep his job. He said, “the rules/guidelines of the corporate world restricted and prevented me in many ways from using my talents fully and from being my true self.” However, since he joined the religious life as a Jesuit novice, he found that the rules/regulations, instead of restricting his growth helped him to grow more fully as a person; they brought out the best in me; they helped me discover my more authentic self. The religious vow of poverty, chastity and obedience is truly life-giving and freeing for me to be able to love God more wholeheartedly.
Many young men and women looking from the outside of the religious vocation, see a distorted view of the vow of poverty as depriving religious of material possessions. The vow of chastity as denying us of the human conjugal acts, while the vow of obedience as denouncing our rights for freedom. Such views are far from the truth.
When we are in love with God, we happily renounce everything so that we can possess God fully. But, if we are too absorbed with loving ourselves and are overly concerned with our own comforts and needs, then renouncing everything is losing everything. When we love God, our security is in God. But, when we love ourselves more than God, then our security is built on our own human capabilities which are no security at all. We all know so well that our worldly successes, our material wealth and our social prestige can take a turn and be snuffed off like a candle flame just simply through a global economic crisis or more certainly through our death. Then what?!
But, if our life’s foundation is built on our love for God and secured through our deep relationship with Him, then as I have explained, we will be able to overcome all our pains, sufferings, worries, trials of life and more importantly, live a fulfilling life that the world can never offer. So, if you are called by God or if your children are called by God, do not deny yourself of the precious opportunity of such a great gift from God. Do not rob yourself of God’s gift to live like Christ so that, as He promised in today’s Gospel, we can then live our lives to the full; the fullest and the most fulfilling way that continues into eternal life.
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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