The grandmother- and mother-to-be
(The following is the homily I preached for the Fourth Sunday of Easter)
For me personally, this Mother’s Day has an additional significance because my sister, for the first time, is a mother-to-be. And that also means that my own mother, for the first time, is a grandmother-to-be. Our family is very excited, of course. Recently I was reading about what my little niece or nephew is like at this moment, so let me bore you with some details. He/she is about the size of a large eggplant. They can blink their eyes and are sensitive now to light. Their lungs and brains are continuing to develop, and most interestingly to me, they are beginning to recognize sounds.
Scientists tell us that one of the first sounds that a child learns to recognize is the sound of their mother’s voice. Tests have been done to show that within the first few minutes after birth, and indeed even while still in utero, babies respond differently to their mother’s voice. They recognize it and respond to it. They are able to distinguish it from other voices and hear in it, somehow, the love their mother has for them.
Do you know who else’s voice should be like that? The voice of God. In the Gospel today, we hear the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, who tells us that his sheep hear his voice, they recognize it, and they follow him. In the time of Jesus, shepherds often allowed their sheep to intersperse with the sheep of other shepherds – good pastureland was hard to come by and so often was shared rather than divided. Soon the sheep became a big mob, undistinguished, unmarked. We might wonder how the shepherd could retrieve the sheep that belonged to him? Easy. The sheep knew the shepherd’s voice. They recognized it; it resonated with them. It spoke to them lovingly in a way that was unlike anyone else’s.
Do you hear the voice of God in that way? Our lives are so often consumed in noise – voices, human or otherwise, that speak to us about what we ought to do or should be doing, voices from the outside and inside that demand something of us, make excuses for us, critique us, coddle us, shame us, scandalize us, lead us into confusion and error and sin. Amid the din, God desires his voice to ring out for us, clearly, like the voice of a shepherd, distinctively, like a mother’s voice, lovingly, like only his voice can be.
How do we hear that voice? It comes to us in various ways. It comes to us in the habit of daily prayer and in the living words of Scripture. It comes to us in the words of a spiritual friend who may console us or encourage us or challenge us depending on what we may need. It comes to us in our conscience, if we truly seek God’s will and not our own.
Perhaps the most important way that God’s voice calls to us in our lives is in our vocation. Our country today celebrates Mother’s Day, but our worldwide Church today celebrates the World Day of Prayer for Vocations. What is a vocation? Nothing more than the voice of God speaking to us, made individual for each of us, unique, asking us to follow him in some specific way. Just as a mother dreams of the future for her child, God has a wonderful plan for every one of his children, and it is only in finding that plan that we will happy.
The Church has traditionally identified three distinct vocations to which God might call us. For some of the young men of our parish, perhaps some of you sitting here today, God is calling you to be a shepherd after the heart of his Son, Jesus, to care for his people as a priest, like Fr. John and Fr. Pius and myself, loving them, laying down your life for them, helping them to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and to follow it. For others among us, God is asking you to consecrate yourself to him in the single life, to live a life of radical otherness marked by prayer, sacrifice, and service for the good of all of us and the universal Church. For most of you, like my sister and her husband, like my mother and father, God is calling you to the vocation of marriage and of parenthood, a vocation which while commonly undertaken is so rarely lived to its fullest potential. What is so exceptional about being a spouse or a parent? To you and to no one else does God give the gift of expressing the love that he himself bears for your spouse, and to receive from your spouse the love he has for you. To you and to no one else does he entrust the mission of raising a human life, of forming their heart and mind and conscience to know him, to love him, to be successful not only in this world but to live with him in the next.
Jesus the Good Shepherd (fresco), San Callisto catacomb, Rome, 3rd century
In a few months, my sister and her husband and our family will joyfully welcome a new child, a child whom they will love and nurture, and a child for whom God will have a special vocation, just as he has for each of us. The voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, calls each of us – whether we’re young or old, whether we’re searching for our vocation or found it long ago, and importantly, even if for whatever reason we are unable to fulfill the vocation God designed for us – Jesus calls to us, he calls to us with love, inviting us to a life of happiness and purpose which he himself has created for us. Are we listening for his voice – will we recognize his voice amid all the other noise of our life? Are we helping those we love, those we nurture to hear him and respond?
I invite us now to pray, for our mothers – but also for our fathers, for our wives and our husbands, for our priests, for our religious brothers and sisters, and especially for our young people, that all of us, whoever we are, wherever we are in life, might hear the voice of God speaking to us.
Let us pray. O God, who enlightens the minds and inflames the hearts of the faithful by the Holy Spirit, grant that through the same Spirit, we may know our true vocation in life and have the grace to follow it faithfully, that we may live with You in eternal life. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.