‘My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish’ (Jn. 10:27).
In this brief statement we have everything we need to know about God and ourselves. The Lord of all creation reveals Himself and He has created us with an ability both to know Him and to share His eternal life. It is upon these foundational truths that we build up our life as individual disciples who learn to recognize the voice of the Good Shepherd within the sheepfold of the Church. We are his people, the sheep of his flock (Ps. 100). Today is Good Shepherd Sunday and as we continue to celebrate the Feast of Easter, we contemplate Jesus, the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep, calls them by name (Cf. Jn. 10:3) and who goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice (Jn. 10:4). The Good Shepherd teaches His sheep to recognise His voice. ‘A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.’ (Jn. 10:6). To what end does He teach us? Eternal life; which Our Lord described in this way in His high priestly prayer at the Last Supper: And this is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent (Jn. 17:3).
I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. (Jer. 3:15). When we consider this promise made by our Heavenly Father through the Prophet Jeremiah, we more easily comprehend how the Shepherd feeds us, what is required on our part so that we might be fed, and how to recognise the voice of the Shepherd. We are fed with both knowledge and understanding. To know something is certainly good but to understand what we know is better. When we understand, it can be said that we see and perceive. Understanding is a fuller form of knowledge that we can only acquire through diligent and faithful discipleship. ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1 Sam. 3:9).
The very first words of the Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict, arguably one of the most influential books in Western civilization are: Listen, my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart. It is with this disposition of mind and heart that we approach the living Word of God and religious instruction. Ideally, the catechetical formation we received in our youth provided us with knowledge of the fundamental truths of our faith, but we know that this is not the case. Most people under the age of sixty have most certainly received deficient religious teaching or formation. All the more reason then, for us to remedy this through our own study of our faith and through our ongoing instruction in the faith which takes place principally though not exclusively through the Sunday sermon or homily. The instructive part of the Mass teaches us to recognise the voice of the Good Shepherd. Eastertide, as we well know, is a privileged time of instruction, mystagogy: instruction in the mysteries; when we proceed from the visible to the invisible, from the sign, to the thing signified, from the sacraments to the mysteries (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1075). The deeper realities that we seek to know and understand give meaning and purpose to our lives. On our part, there is one thing needed from us so that we might derive the greatest benefit from the instruction that we receive: docility (docilitas).
Generally speaking, docility is the willingness and capacity we have of being able to learn something we did not know…docility also means our recognition that we do not know many things; that we need the help of others, wiser than we are, to learn most of what we know (Fr. James Schall). This is true of most knowledge and it is especially true of knowledge of religious truth. Docility necessarily implies that we approach learning with humility. A teacher cannot teach unless someone is willing to be taught. This brings us to the heart of the matter when it comes to learning and receiving the truths of our faith. My sheep hear my voice’. Docility enables us both to learn and to recognise the voice of the Shepherd of whom the Prophet Isiah said: Here is my Servant, whom I uphold…He will not cry out or raise His voice, nor make His voice heard in the streets. A bruised reed He will not break and a smouldering wick he will not extinguish (Is. 42:1-3). The school of Christian discipleship is not harsh; it is gentle and it is marked by humility, gentleness, charity, docility, compassion and truth. These are the hallmarks of true Christian discipleship. ‘Learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart’ (Mt. 11:29).
Our adherence to the Mystery of Christ engages us in a life-long process of learning where, amidst the different and at times strident voices claiming to speak the truth of Christ, we persevere in recognising the voice of the Good Shepherd. If anything may be said of our times, it is that they are marked not by docility but by indocility; not by a willingness to learn but by a refusal to recognise and to accept the unchanging truth of Christ. What is worse and this is not a new thing, though its intensity has greatly increased, is the concerted effort to subject the truth of Christ to contemporary whims and errors. This has caused not only confusion, but also deep divisions in families, parishes, religious communities and almost every institution in the Church. Such is the state of confusion that some years ago, Fr. Linus Clovis famously observed that the Catholic Church and the anti-church currently co-exist in the same sacramental, liturgical and juridical space (2017). What this means is that the unity of the Church in faith, worship and conduct is no longer universally evident. In the anti-church of man’s making there is nothing enduring for everything ultimately is a human construct. We must endeavour to remain steadfast in the truth of Christ, to heed the voice of the Good Shepherd and refuse to be deceived by the voice of strangers? There is a very simple way to determine whose voice we heed: are we led to deeper virtue or to vice? Are we more faithful or less faithful to the demands of Christian life?
If we wish to learn to recognise the voice of the Good Shepherd, to be nourished by Him and to belong to His flock, then we must persevere in the path of devout humility that we have undertaken to tread. There is no better example for us to follow in this regard than Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary whom we especially honour during this month of May. May Our Lady teach us always to recognise and to obey the voice of the Good Shepherd whose call is always a call to deeper love of God and neighbour. In His mercy, may God keep us from all error, indocility and disobedience, and hasten the triumph of Our Lady’s Immaculate Heart.⧾