Today, the 4th Sunday of Easter, is typically referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” When we hear the Gospel in which Jesus describes Himself as the “Good Shepherd” who lays down His life for His sheep, the Church also asks us to remember the vocation of priesthood, which Jesus left to the Church so that His sheep would never be without a shepherd.
It may seem a little self-serving for me to write a bulletin column about the vocation of the priesthood, but it’s also a little sobering in this day and age, when over the past year the sins of priests have been particularly on display. These sins have caused deep wounds not only to those directly victimized, but also to all the faithful. They’ve also caused some to even question the priesthood itself, wondering if perhaps the priesthood is somehow fundamentally broken.
In talking about the priesthood on this Good Shepherd Sunday, a few things come to mind. First of all, I can testify firsthand that being a priest is an incredible life. It’s challenging, just like any vocation, but the blessings outweigh the challenges every single day. As a parish priest, I’m so blessed to be able to preside at the sacraments and to be a part of my parishioners’ lives. We priests get a window into the faith of our parishioners which strengthens our own faith in countless ways. I wouldn’t trade being a priest for any other life, and I know that most of my brother priests feel exactly the same way.
I can also attest that there is a lot of reason to feel hopeful about the future of the priesthood. As you’ve read about the horrible scandals reported in the news, you may have noticed almost all of the cases being reported, including new accusations that have surfaced, are decades-old. There are many reasons for that. Certainly the Safe Environment Programs that have been mandatory in every diocese since 2002 have helped to screen those coming into contact with children, as well as educate all volunteers to spot the signs of abuse more quickly. (You can see more about what has been done by reading 2002’s “Dallas Charter”, available at http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/upload/Charter-for-the-Protection-of-Children-and-Young-People-2018-final.pdf) But more specifically to priests: the way that we recruit, screen and train priests is much different than it used to be. Psychological screening for applicants to the seminary, which was uncommon during the times when most priest-abusers entered the seminary, is now standard practice, and has been for a number of years. Also, the concept of “human formation” was introduced in the 1990s. Prior to this there really weren’t guidelines to help form seminarians for celibacy, but in today’s seminary formation programs there is a strong emphasis on helping future priests develop the skills to live celibacy in a joyful and fruitful way. None of this is meant to make excuses for the past or to be complacent about the future. It’s simply intended to state that we have a real reason to be hopeful about the future of the priesthood. We have much work to do, but we’re not starting from Ground Zero.
I think that leads to the most important message of Good Shepherd Sunday, which is – if I may be so bold – to pray for your priests. God is asking each of us to be “another Christ”, which is impossible for any human being to do, but we answer that call anyway because we trust that nothing is impossible for God. And so I thank you for all of your prayers and for the many other ways in which you have consistently supported your priests here at Christ the King. And I ask you to pray for vocations and to encourage young men to consider the priesthood as they’re thinking about their future. We need good, holy priests now more than ever.