“The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice; I know them and they follow me.”


A shepherd watches over his sheep

I don’t get to say this very often, but for once, I think I really know exactly what Jesus is talking about. My family is from the hill-country of Donegal – good sheep-farming country. And my great uncle William was a good shepherd. Every day until the day he died at the age of 92, the first thing he had to do was to go and check on the sheep and make sure that nothing bad had happened to them during the night. So every morning, before dawn, he would get up, walk the three miles up the mountain and sometimes I would go with him. And when he got to the place he would sit on the dark hill-side and wait for the dawn. And, as the light came up, he would see his sheep shine out from the darkness like stars coming out at night.

At the time, it seemed to me strange that he never counted them. His sheep had names, not numbers. And as they came into view, he would recognize it - even at five hundred yards and call it very softly by its name. And when he saw that they were all well and nothing bad had happened to them during the night, and they were all feeding well, then he was content. He could go back down the mountain and have his own breakfast.

We asked him why he did this.
He said that our family had been shepherds as far back as there were records; that his own grandfather had lived through the Famine; during the Famine, it was the Sheep that had saved us. So he knew that, so long as his sheep were well, the family would never starve. And so, the first thing he had to do every morning was to make sure that his sheep were all right. And he could not eat himself until he was sure of this. He simply could not bear to think that he might be sitting at home while one of his sheep was in trouble on the mountain.

I think that is exactly what Jesus means when he describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.
And I rather like to think of Jesus doing that - watching out to make sure each and every one of his sheep are doing all right, keeping them all in view, and calling each one by name.

My family still has sheep on those hills - I like to think we always will.

And I rather like to think that I have carried on, in my own life as a priest, the tradition of shepherding that my great uncle William left to me.

And I also rather like to hope that in every generation the Lord will call more shepherds to continue the work that Jesus left to His disciples.

And – perhaps rather pushing my luck – I rather like to hope that there may be someone present here today that the Lord is calling to pastoral service with the People of God in the World.

During the course of this coming week, I would ask every one of us to consider what part we are asked to take in providing the care and guidance to those for whom we have been given sacred responsibilities.

Let us this week, profess our Faith in God who calls each of us by our name.

Paul O'Reilly SJ