Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript from Archbishop Paul Coakley’s homily upon commencement of the Conception Seminary College Class of 2014. It was given May 11, 2014.
I am grateful for this opportunity to give the homily today in the presence of the monastic and seminary communities as well as the families and friends of our graduates as we bid farewell to the Conception Seminary College Class of 2014.
This Fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally known as Good Shepherd Sunday. Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd and Christian art has been fond of portraying Him as such from the time when the earliest distinctively Christian art was created in the catacombs. It is a beautiful image. The good shepherd is the one who is concerned for the welfare of his sheep, guiding them to good pastures, protecting them from the threats of thieves and wild animals, and who seeks out the lost sheep and carries it back to safety on his own shoulders. The good shepherd is one who, as Pope Francis has said more recently and quite poignantly, takes on the smell of his sheep!
The seed of every vocation, however, is sown and flourishes most effectively in the fertile soil of the Christian family. Good marriages are the key to abundant vocations. A loving home in which parents take seriously their responsibility as first teachers of their children provides the best setting for the transmission of faith, for formation in virtue and the discernment of a vocation. While the whole Christian community has the responsibility to cultivate and pray for vocations, the family is the first and ideal seminary, or “seedbed,” to cultivate and foster this gift. This Mother’s Day, which happens to coincide with the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, I want to acknowledge the importance of you mothers in supporting your sons in the journey that has lead each of them to this day. You have given them life, you have nurtured them with your love and, in mysterious ways known only to God, you have fostered their faith and borne them in your heart through your prayers and sufferings. Thank you.
This weekend we are mindful of the many shepherds -- the parish priests, the members of this monastic and seminary community, and many others who, throughout the years, have been so instrumental in forming these graduates and helping them to hear and respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd. On this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, we humbly ask the Lord to continue to call many young men and women to lives of holiness and discipleship in service to his Church, especially as priests and consecrated men and women.
In the section of today’s gospel that we just heard on this Good Shepherd Sunday, Jesus uses a different word picture from the same pastoral setting. Rather than referring to himself as the shepherd Jesus calls himself the gate. Only the one who enters the sheepfold through the gate is the shepherd. Those who hop the fence are entering the sheepfold with evil intent! They are thieves who enter not to protect the flock but to steal and destroy. These words are a challenge, especially for those of us who are called to be shepherds, whether as bishops or priests or seminarians.
The question Jesus poses is “who are you most interested in”? Is your concern for the well-being of those entrusted to your care or do you seek first your own advantage? Jesus tells us that anyone who is merely looking out for himself is a thief and a robber. A priest who thinks first about his own popularity or advancement is no shepherd at all; he is a thief beguiling his hearers with flattering words. He won’t risk his reputation for the sake of proclaiming the full truth of the Gospel by his words or by the witness of his life. Beware of false shepherds.
Pope Francis echoes this challenge in Evangelii Gaudium: “Today we are seeing in many pastoral workers … an inordinate concern for their own freedom and relaxation, which leads them to see their work as a mere appendage to their life, as if it were not part of their very identity. … It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission. Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of missionary enthusiasm!”
When Peter stood before the crowds on the day of Pentecost, as we hear in the first reading, he proclaimed Jesus Christ as the way, the truth and the life: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made both Lord and Christ this Jesus whom you crucified.” When the people heard his witness they responded: “What are we to do, brothers?” The people recognized in Peter the authentic voice of the Good Shepherd. They were eager to respond. Let his voice resound in the words and witness of all who are called to priestly and episcopal ministry today!
Some of you graduates have spent four years here, others less. These have been years of grace and growth as you have entered the path of conversion and a more intentional Christian and priestly formation. I hope that you have recognized the voice of the Good Shepherd and that your hearts have been set aflame with love and an eagerness to know him, to follow him and to pattern your life on his. Some of you will move on to major seminary to continue your priestly formation. Others who came to discern whether the Lord was calling you to priesthood have discovered that the Lord is calling you to serve him along another path toward holiness. In either case, your formation for discipleship and mission continues beyond these years and this experience of fraternity and Christian living.
Our Holy Father writes in the “Joy of the Gospel”: “The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him ‘to go forth.’ Abraham received the call to set out for a new land. Moses heard God’s call: ‘Go, I send you” and led the people toward the promised land. To Jeremiah, God says: ‘To all whom I send you, you shall go.’ In our day Jesus’ command to ‘go and make disciples’ echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges of the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary ‘going forth.’”
My brothers, today is a “going forth” for each of you. All are called to share in this mission. You are going forth from this alma mater to follow the path that the Good Shepherd walks before you. With some certainty, I can tell you that it is a path that inevitably leads beyond your comfort zones. Be not afraid, for the Lord assures us, “I am with you always.” You came here in response to God’s call in order to encounter Jesus, to experience the joy of the Gospel and to be formed as a disciple. Now you must “go forth.” You are being sent as missionary disciples and agents of the new evangelization for the Twenty-first Century. May God who has begun this good work in you bring it to completion.