Thinking Anew – The real meaning of service

“When we encounter faith-filled service we know we have been privileged to witness the un-showy work of the Good Shepherd.” Photograph: Getty Images

“When we encounter faith-filled service we know we have been privileged to witness the un-showy work of the Good Shepherd.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

I’m writing this column on a stunning April day. Summer beckons. Many people in Ireland have been vaccinated. New life is at a fledgling moment. Blossoms make their first appearance of the year, reminding us to be gentle with our environment. Sheep give birth and the newborn lambs are gambolling in the fields. Tomorrow’s Gospel of the Good Shepherd (John 10: 11-18) throws a welcome light on the strange time in which we are living.

I have seen first-hand over the last 12 months the dedicated service of hospital staff and how they have come through as good shepherds during this Covid crisis. Their work is replicated across the country.

In the first reading in tomorrow’s liturgy (Acts 4: 8-12) Peter – exuberant about Jesus rising from the dead and filled with the Holy Spirit – tells the rulers and elders that they should not be surprised how kind he and his companions are. Their kindness knows no bounds. They manage to cure a cripple but quickly point out that it is through the power of Jesus Christ that they do it.

The Gospel is the story of the Good Shepherd, the person who lays down his life for his sheep. We are all called to be Good Shepherds.

During Holy Week, I came across a saying from Fr Leo Trese (1902-1970). He said this: “The only epitaph a priest should want on his headstone is that he was kind.”

Every generation sees changes. We in Ireland have seen major changes over the last 50 years, including significant changes in our attitudes towards our faith. The church is in crisis. But maybe the church of its nature needs to be in a state of crisis?

There are many facets to this crisis of faith. There is a palpable division within Christian communities. There are serious divisions within sacramental priesthood. There is a growing polarisation, which manifests itself when it comes to discussion on the celebration of the sacraments. Some young priests see their older colleagues as having let down the church and are now attempting to return to a pre-Vatican II era. That can only lead to further division and failure.

In the second reading from the First Letter to St John (3: 1-2) we are told we are all God’s children. All Christians are part of the priesthood of the baptised.

People with different opinions and ideas must speak to one another, in a spirit of openness and respect.

What’s the job of the priest? To live and speak about the Gospel?

But isn’t that the task of all baptised Christians?

Priesthood has to do more than that, to give service, a service that entails nudging people towards God. The priest does this through the celebration of the sacraments with specific emphasis on the Eucharist, where he acts in the person of Christ. But the sacraments should be celebrated in a way that make sense to the Christian community.

In last week’s Gospel (Luke 24: 35-48) Christ’s disciples recognised him in the breaking of bread. Has the Eucharist a similar significance for us? Sacraments link the human with the divine.

There is urgent need for dialogue, for a forum where all baptised people can talk openly and honestly and respectfully about their search and journey towards God. The kindness of St Peter and his companions must play an important part in the life of every Christian and suffuse our dealings with each other.

One of the striking characteristics of Peter and his companions, who act in the person of Christ, was their kindness in bringing comfort and healing to the sick.

The Good Shepherd, the Christ-like figure at the back of the queue, might well play a far more significant role than we acknowledge. The Good Shepherd embodies the real meaning of service. When we encounter faith-filled service we know we have been privileged to witness the un-showy work of the Good Shepherd. And we encounter it in so many different forms, places and settings.

Tomorrow’s Gospel is a timely reminder for us to thank all those who have helped and shepherded us to get through these, the strangest of times.

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