May 3; 4th Sunday of Easter - Good Shepherd Sunday; Year A

Choose God and not His works4th Easter 19 20

This year, I had found it exceptionally hard to preach on Good Shepherd Sunday, the day we pray for more vocations to the priestly ministry. It’s difficult because I feel profoundly ashamed. A priest is supposed to be a shepherd (Latin - pastor). But we find ourselves in a situation where we have been physically cut off from our sheep and our sheep have been separated from their shepherds.

Of course, we remain connected in the virtual world. But virtual is just not the same as reality. Our congregation now watches us celebrate the masses on their screens, perhaps sometimes drawn by the very same thing which draws people to certain celebrities and performances. As for the priests, we are often measured by the quality of our preaching because when it comes to the celebration of the mass, one streamed mass looks quite like the next, unless the celebrant chooses to imbue it with his personal showmanship and pizzazz.

But the reality is this: the mass is not a performance and we priests are not celebrities. Priests are meant to be shepherds and shepherds are meant to be with their sheep. I told Fr Dominic the other day (in jest), “in this world of virtual reality and streamed masses, people don’t need more priestly vocations. One or two will do. They, however, need more talented priests with stage presence.”

As I struggled to make sense of this time of physical social distancing and the digitalising of our ministry, I recalled the ministry of another pastor who was separated from his flock for 13 years. Who would have imagined that we would find ourselves in a similar situation, cut off from our flock, albeit for two months (or perhaps even longer). Today I would like to share his story, a story of immense hope and inspiration not just for us priests but also for all of you, as you continue to struggle with the spiritual hunger of being cut off from the sacraments and your shepherds.

The shepherd I’m speaking of is the late Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuân. Shortly after he was made coadjutor archbishop of Saigon in 1975, he was arrested and imprisoned by the Communist because of his Catholic faith. He never got to exercise his ministry as archbishop. After 13 years of imprisonment, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement, he was finally released on the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lady in the year 1988 and sent into exile.

During his time in prison, he used his limited resources creatively in order to fulfill his duties as shepherd to the faithful. As he could not physically be present to his people, he had to find a way to reach out to them, so he solicited the help of a young boy to bring him old calendars. I am thankful that I have the internet, social media, and online video conferencing applications. I cannot imagine myself writing on the reverse side of our unused bulletins (which Fr Dom does) and replicating these for public consumption.

The Cardinal wrote simple, sincere messages of hope on the calendars and had the young boy copy and distribute them among the faithful. He was practically a human xerox machine. The Church should canonise him just for this. The Cardinal’s profound letters to the Catholic community strengthened them in their faith and helped them to persevere. These short-written messages reminded the people that their beloved archbishop, though not physically present, was present with them through prayer and in spirit.

The Cardinal, manifesting innovative fidelity, also used his scanty means to celebrate Mass in prison. He knew that celebrating Mass was his most important duty, but he had no church, no altar, and no tabernacle. How, then, could he fulfill his duty as bishop? He turned the concentration camp into a cathedral and the palm of his hand into an altar. He turned his shirt pocket into a tabernacle and turned the darkness of the sleeping quarters into a dwelling place for Light Himself. Fr Dominic and I are grateful that we still have our little chapel.

Because of his ingenuity, many prisoners regained the fervour of their faith. The prisoners were reminded to embrace suffering and to use their current circumstances to grow in faith. His example and teachings remind us that Christian faith entails an active surrender to the Lord. It means seeking the best way to proclaim Christ’s love in every moment, every circumstance, and every action, even when all the odds seem stacked against us.

What was the secret of his resilience? He shared this in his memoirs:
“Alone in my prison cell, I continued to be tormented by the fact that I was forty-eight years old, in the prime of my life, that I had worked for eight years as a bishop and gained so much pastoral experience and there I was, isolated, inactive and far from my people.”

One night, from the depths of my heart, I could hear a voice advising me: "Why torment yourself? You must discern between God and the works of God - everything you have done and desire to continue to do, pastoral visits, training seminarians, sisters and members of religious orders, building schools, evangelising non-Christians. All of that is excellent work, the work of God but it is not God! If God wants you to give it all up and put the work into his hands, do it and trust him. God will do the work infinitely better than you; he will entrust the work to others who are more able than you. You have only to choose God and not the works of God!"

As I reread the story of this saintly bishop, I decided that I should stop whining and stop feeling sorry for myself. Neither should I be overly anxious for my flock because they are in good hands. My congregation is not without a shepherd, they have the Good Shepherd, who can do a far greater job than I. “Michael, if God wants you to give it all up and put the work into His hands, do it and trust Him. God will do the work infinitely better than you.” Those words of Cardinal Van Thuân will be my guide as I entrust my ministry and the care of my people to the Good Shepherd, who will never desert His flock and will always protect them against “thieves and brigands”. He is the One who laid down His life for me and for you so that we may have life and have it to the full. You only have to choose Him, always.