In the “Living with Christ“ booklet for April, there is an introductory article by Bishop Christian Riesbeck, former auxiliary bishop for the Ottawa diocese and now Bishop of St John, New Brunswick, and hopefully at some future time, our Pope. In his article, Bishop Christian describes the growth of his own vocation to become a priest, a “shepherd” of the Church.
He writes, quoting words of Jesus from our gospel today:
“ ‘know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.’ When a person comes to know the Father’s love that Jesus came to reveal, acknowledging Jesus as the only hope of salvation for the whole human race and encountering him as the Good Shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’, their lives are transformed.
This happened to me when I had my ‘spiritual awakening’ in my first year of university. With God’s grace I came to realize that he knows me in the most perfect and intimate way, and that he desires a close and intimate relationship with me in the Church. I gave God permission to reveal his heart to me, and grew in my desire to listen to his voice over all the other voices that competed for my attention. As that voice became stronger I found myself wanting to be faithful and docile, to live my life for him and to be like him, with a heart after the Good Shepherd’s own heart…
My greatest joy as a bishop and a priest is to make Jesus known, and then see people come alive in their faith as they encounter Jesus in the Word and the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist – the memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and resurrection…”Bishop Christian Riesbeck
Bishop Christian’s words made me reflect on my own vocation to be a priest, and on the long and winding road that eventually led me to become one. It started with me, as with Bishop Christian, at university, where, like him, I had a “spiritual awakening”. Though I was a “cradle” Catholic, receiving my Catholicism with my mother’s milk, as they say, and a faithful Sunday Mass attender and sayer of my prayers, I can’t pretend that it seemed to do me much good at the time. For most of my early adolescent life and beyond, I was a prey to constant depression and fearfulness. There was a hole in the center of my heart that caused me to have feelings of lack of self-worth and loneliness. And I didn’t know how to fill it . All the desperate prayers I could muster failed to fill that hole.
I was a lost sheep, and that was the first time that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, came to rescue me. One evening, out of the depths of misery, I had prayed to God that, if he were indeed real, would he please show himself to me. And the very next day, in the university cafeteria, while I was minding my own business, sitting by myself and feeling pretty sorry for myself, a complete stranger came and sat down beside me and asked me the strangest question in all the world, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” I had to ask him to repeat it, and I still didn’t know how to answer it. I believed Jesus had been a real person, I knew the story of his life, but I didn’t know you could have a personal relationship with him, nor that he actually wanted me to have a personal relationship with him. I didn’t think Jesus knew me from Adam. I didn’t know at that time, that when Jesus says, as he does in our gospel today, “I know my own and my own know me” that this word “know” means “to have a personal relationship with”
As Bishop Christian says in his article I quoted from earlier: ”he desires a close and intimate relationship with me.” This perfect stranger besides me introduced me to his friends, all sincere and committed Christians, who seemed to glow with a joy and love and faith that I envied and longed to share in, and, as with Bishop Christian, they led me in a prayer, inviting Jesus into my heart and asking him to reveal his heart to me. Like Bishop Christian, this was the start of a whole new era in my life, and one which led me to seek to follow Christ as his priest.
Now, before you think that it was all plain sailing for me thereafter, let me at once disabuse you. Came a time, some seven or eight years later, when I had been at seminary five years already, and almost through my studies, that I started having doubts about whether I really wanted to become a priest or not. I thought about my friends outside the seminary, who were mostly married with kids and successful jobs, and I wondered if I wasn’t missing the boat somehow. Perhaps I would be happier as a layman, with a wife and family, and a career, and still able to perform some worthwhile ministry in the church, perhaps as a reader or Eucharistic minister or catechist.
Eventually, I came to the point where I just had to know whether the grass really was greener on the other side. So I left the seminary, met a lovely girl, was at the point of becoming engaged to her, and landed a job as a religious education teacher.
I seemed to have ticked all the right boxes.
And yet, I discovered that I wasn’t really all that much happier.
Something was missing, there was that hole in my heart again. I was once more a lost sheep and for the second time Jesus,the Good Shepherd, came to find me and rescue me from my “lostness.” I was in the chapel of a retreat house where I had brought some of my students for a few days retreat. It was late at night, and I was alone there, and praying and seeking the reason why I just didn’t seem to be connecting with God . And out of nowhere, the desire to become a priest welled up in me once more, irresistibly. As with Bishop Christian, as I gave God permission to reveal his heart, and allow me to hear his voice over all the other voices competing for my attention, I came to know that he was still calling me to become his priest. And, as I gave my “yes” to him a second time, an incredible joy filled my heart and I knew I had come back to my heart’s true home .
There’s more to the story, much more, and a time in my early priestly life when I experienced a great deal of trauma, and, while not ever thinking of giving up my priesthood, I was lost and confused, again like that poor sheep, and Jesus, one more time, came and found me, picked me up and set me right again, and, to cut a long story short, I ended up coming to Ottawa, coming to St Philip’s and St Clare’s, and Lift Jesus Higher, and you know the rest.
But to tie all this into the Scripture, I will take you back to the familiar story in the gospel of Luke , of two of Jesus’ disciples leaving Jerusalem on the same day as Jesus rising from the dead and making their way to Emmaus,severalmiles away, and unbeknownst to them, Jesus comes alongside of them and starts walking with them. He notices they are rather downcast and he asks them why. So they tell him that they were disciples of Jesus, that they had hoped great things from him, yet he had been crucified and buried, and now some women were saying he was alive, but they didn’t believe them, and they just wanted to get away from Jerusalem , the place where all their hopes had died and were now buried. You know how in the story, Jesus gradually reveals himself to them through Scripture and sharing eucharist with them, and they realize that, in fact, Jesus is indeed alive, and they run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell the other disciples.
Now here’s the thing. Ever wonder why Jesus bothered going after those two and revealing himself to them? It was because they were running away from their vocation to be disciples of Jesus, they were in danger of missing the moment when the Holy Spirit would fall on the whole group of apostles at Pentecost ,and bring alive all their hopes and dreams and destinies. And Jesus did not want them to miss out on all of that, of realizing all that they were called to be and become, of fulfilling their potential in taking hold of the call of God on their lives. As Jesus wants for each and every one of us, brothers and sisters.
Bishop Christian finishes his article by saying that “all disciples of Jesus” and that means, brothers and sisters, you and me, we are, each of us, “called from our baptism to share in the glorified life of the resurrection and, as children of God, to be holy and active participants in Jesus’ salvific mission.” We are not all called to be ordained priests and deacons, or men and women religious, but some of us are. Yet we are all called, in Bishop Christian’s own words, “to find the truest fulfilment and purpose of our lives by living in service to others in the mould of the Good Shepherd – knowing Jesus and making him and the abundant life he offers known in a world that so desperately needs him”.
If you are feeling a bit like that lost sheep right now, if you are worried you might have missed out on your destiny, or if there is a hole in your heart where your destiny should be, I want to lead you in prayer for the Holy Spirit to fill that hole with a close and intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, which will lead you to your heart’s true home.