Today, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday or Vocations Sunday. We all know that vocation to the priesthood and religious life is getting lesser and lesser each year worldwide. The reason for such a trend is not because God is calling less people to the vocation, but because the vocation to the priesthood and religious life is getting increasingly less attractive.
However, there are certain exceptions. In countries like Vietnam and East Timor where vocation to the priesthood and religious life is still an attractive option, more than 80% of the vocations come from the rural areas. And what is also evident is that in these rural areas, the traditional family unit of the father being the breadwinner and the mother caring for the home is still intact.
Family in East Timor
I am aware that in first world countries, where the cost of living is high, many families it would find it very difficult to provide for their families financially if only one of the spouses is working. I am also aware that as with the IT world, it is impossible for us to isolate ourselves from the influences of the globalised secular values that come through Mass media in our daily living.
Nevertheless, the effects of secularism on our lives are very significant and it is very important that we bring to our consciousness how they undermine the Gospel values of Christ and thus make us less attracted to the Christ-like life of our Christian vocation.
Tom Lehman is one of our top golfers in the world. This is what he shared about his life as a top sportsman, which I will adapt for this homily. He says, “When I failed to win the 1994 Masters and the U.S. Open in the following two years, finishing second place each time, I was struggling with self-doubt, and I dreaded to hear what I knew my critics would say: that I could never win the big one.
These feelings of self-doubt were not new to me. When I was 15-years-old, our football team won the state championship. When we had a big parade when we got back to town, I felt completely isolated because I didn’t really help my team win as I just sat on the bench during the championship. I felt like a failure. I just wasn't good enough. You get a lot of these in sports where you sense you are as good as your last performance.
Over time these feelings were so overwhelming that I could hardly stand it. I had tried my hardest. I had tried to be good for my parents, good for my team, good for my friends, good for God. But, with each failure I'd just feel worse and worse. I then began to ask myself, 'What is it that gives life meaning? Why am I here? Why am I so miserable?'
During those moments, my coach who is a Christian invited me to meet some other Christian athletes. For the first time I heard people talking about God and the unconditional love and unconditional acceptance He has for us. I thought that was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to feel that I was loved, that I was valued despite my failures. With God, I suddenly realized that I did matter. I mattered enough to God that He died for me. That was an incredible thought. It choked me up, and it made me realize that I was important.
Right then I asked God to come into my life. And I've never had a feeling like that since. The feeling of guilt on my shoulders just disappeared. Tears of joy flowed over my cheeks and I felt peace and contentment like I had never known.
Shortly after I lost the two U.S. Opens, I won the British Open and the PGA Tour Championship. I was even ranked the best player in the world. But after all the celebrations, I was the same person with the same problems. You think victory will change your life, that life's going to be better because you won a golf tournament. But when things are all over, you still get mad at your wife, still resent your parents and you even have new problems from all the sudden notoriety.
The Bible says that all men are like grass and their glory like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fade. I found this to be true in my life. Victory is great, but it is ultimately empty. Even the thrill of winning the British Open fades.
So what does last? They are the relationships I have with God and with others. They are what give life meaning. Regardless of what anyone says about me or how I feel about myself, my wife and kids think I'm great. They love me. But, more importantly, God loves me. And, ultimately, that’s what matters most.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, in today’s Gospel Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep knows me. And, I will lay down my life for my sheep.” In saying this, Jesus is saying to you and I that we will never ever be alone because Jesus who loves us will always be there with us and for us.
Jesus in today’s Gospel of the “Good Shepherd” who tells us five times that He will lay down His life for us is assuring us beyond any doubt that His love for us is absolutely personal and infinitely unconditional. To affirm and accept such divine love is essential so that our self-worth is built on who we are to God and who God is to us rather than what people think of us, as Tom Lehman in our story experienced as a world class sportsman.
We can see that it is no wonder that vocation to the priesthood and religious life is not attractive in a secular world because while such vocation demands a person to be radically Christ-centred, and like Christ, willing to lay down our life out of love for Him, the secular world empties our hearts of our love for one another through a life that radically glorifies and gratifies the self . . . and eventually, like Tom Lehman, before his conversion, experiences life to be empty, meaningless, miserable and lonely.
Psychiatrists and clinical psychologists tell us the loneliness is the root not only of increasing number of alcoholism, drug use, psychosomatic symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, low-back pains, traffic accidents and even suicides. While our culture value togetherness, unity and community, loneliness is prevalent amongst our children, adolescents, adults and aged in growing degree because of the competitive individualism that secularism promotes in our modern world.
What then do we do? We need to take the difficult road of conversion from our state of loneliness to solitude. Instead of running away from our loneliness and trying to forget or deny it, we have to protect it and turn it into a fruitful solitude. This requires not only courage, but strong faith.
As it is hard to believe that the dry, desolate desert can yield endless varieties of flowers, it is equally hard to imagine that our loneliness is hiding an unknown beauty that is waiting to bloom from within our hearts – the beauty of discovering the “Good Shepherd” who loves us so deeply and intimately that He is willing to lay down His life for us.
In conclusion, let me say that even as we celebrate Vocation Sunday today, we celebrate it with the awareness that, one of the main reasons why the vocation to the priesthood and religious life is getting increasingly less attractive is because of the effects of secularism in our modern world today.
The life of Tom Lehman, our world class golfer’s life in different ways reveal how life can be painfully empty, meaningless, miserable and lonely even though we are successful in the secular world. We are reminded of this as Tom shares that even as first runner up in world class competition, he felt like a failure and had self doubt; this is the cruel world of expectations that we live in. And even as he was named the best player in the world, victory in the sports did not give him the deep fulfilment that he longed to have until he found Christ and built his life and his family on His unconditional love.
As we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday, we ought to celebrate with great joy of knowing how blessed we truly are to have Jesus the Good Shepherd Himself loves us so much that He is willing to lay down His life for us . . . Jesus assured us of this no less than five times just in today’s Gospel; we know He means it fully because He went all the way to Calvary and died for us.
It is now up to us to allow this truth to conquer any loneliness we may have by allowing Him to take root in our heart by spending quite time of solitude with Him daily and allow the beauty of the Good Shepherd to bloom within our hearts
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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