Summary: THIS IS A HOMILY I GAVE DURING MY ORDINATION THANKSGIVING MASS
“Jesus took pity on them because they were like Sheep without shepherd.” Today we ask ourselves what those words mean as we celebrate a birth in the priestly family. What could the Gospel be teaching us about the priesthood in that imagery of the sheep and the shepherd? More so as it is not only the Gospel that offers us the imagery of the sheep and the shepherd: the theme of the First Reading today is: “The remnant of my flock I will gather, and I will raise up shepherds to look after them.” And of course we also heard about the good shepherd in that glorious Responsorial Psalm from Psalm 22, which represents our hope that our Lord is the good Shepherd who guides us along the right path, so that goodness and kindness shall follow us all the days of our lives.
I did not choose those readings, as they are the normal readings of the day. However, I do not see coincidence in the relationship between the message of today’s readings and the meaning of priesthood. Rather I see providence, the hand of the Lord pointing out to us what priesthood is—through the way the shepherd sees his vocation, as an imagery that ultimately points to the one Good Shepherd who offered himself so that God’s people would not be like sheep without shepherd. Supporting this imagery of the Shepherd is our Jesuit document, GC 34, which links Christ’s role as shepherd to his priestly character, and says that through ordination we Jesuits share in that priestly character of Jesus and in his role as the shepherd of God’s people. (I can assure you that even the 1st year novices among the Jesuits present here can tell you where that quote is from: Decree Six, number 164!)
So it is with faith in the words of Scriptures and in the understanding of Jesuit priesthood that we ask ourselves what it means to be a shepherd in our own given context. Who is a shepherd? How many of us here have seen a shepherd? You do not need to have lived in ancient Israel, in order to appreciate what it means to be a shepherd. I have seen the Massai of Kenya and the way they take care of their cattle. And I am sure many of you here today have seen the Fulani in the north and the way they take care of their cows. Both in their physical appearance and interior disposition, they are living examples of the good shepherds in the time of Jesus. In terms of their interior disposition, the Massai and the Fulani are a very humble and dedicated people. In their physical appearance, they are usually very slim, such that you may be tempted to consider them malnourished. But if you dare touch one of the cattle in their care, you will soon realize that they are not malnourished at all! They are also usually very scantily dressed, which enables them to move easily and run if necessary for the well being and defense of their flock. So both their physical appearance and their interior disposition testify to their commitment in their vocation as shepherd.
I see in that commitment a model for the priestly shepherd. Unfortunately, I may not be able to match the physical appearance of the shepherds. The size of my stomach alone is enough to make us give up on that. And even if I manage to become slim with all the physical exercise that I intend doing, what about the way we dress as priests? Our dressing certainly does not reflect the shepherds that we know. So it is obviously not at a physical level that we see a priestly model in the shepherds, although their simplicity confirms the choice of a simple lifestyle that I have made as a priest. Rather, the message we draw from the priestly model of the shepherd lies in the readiness of the shepherd to be at the service of the flock.
This is what my many years of priestly preparation have taught me, to be at the ready service of all God’s people everywhere. Amazingly, to show you how slow we Jesuits are, I have spent 12 years learning that simple message. I joined the Jesuit seminary in 1991, and so have spent the last 12 years in the Jesuit training to become a priest—a shepherd. I hope you will notice that those years have not been wasted, because they have indeed equipped me in how to be of service in the here and now based on what I have learnt in the there and then. Speaking of the there and then, I lived in America and in Europe for a few years in the course of my studies. I saw how the Jesuits, as true shepherds, contributed greatly to the development of the culture and society of that part of the world. Such that one could fairly say that the West would not have been as developed as it is today without its Christian heritage, in which the Jesuits played a significant role. I hope to follow in the footsteps of my Jesuit ancestors, so that I too will be able to be of a similar but unique type of service, within the Church, one that contributes to the development of all God’s people—in Nigeria, around Africa and around the world.