“A number of words come to my mind today as I reflect on my own vocation story – gratitude, encouragement, unworthiness, trust, and openness.” – Archbishop Eamon Martin
On this Sunday seven years ago I was ordained as a bishop here in this beautiful Cathedral of Saint Patrick in Armagh. It was a day of great joy and celebration for me and for my family and friends – surrounded by the people, religious and priests of the Archdiocese of Armagh. I prayed that day that God would help me, in my life as a bishop to be like the Good Shepherd – I’m still trying, and still praying!
The Cathedral is empty this morning – social distancing is still keeping us physically apart, but I know that despite the restrictions we, the sheep of God’s flock, continue to be linked spiritually in this new kind of community and communion.
Good Shepherd Sunday is also the world day of prayer for vocations. A number of words come to my mind today as I reflect on my own vocation story – gratitude, encouragement, unworthiness, trust, and openness. Pope Francis also uses some of these words in his message for today.
Gratitude – I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for my parents, family members, close friends and for you, the People of God, for sustaining me in my vocation as a priest, and now as a bishop. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had for education, for growth and change, and I am humbled by the immense love and support I continue to receive. I think that gratitude and thankfulness help to sustain every vocation – it’s vitally important in marriage and in the caring vocations of any kind. And it’s related to my second word, encouragement.
One of my favourite bible verses is in the letter to the Hebrews: “every day, as long as this today lasts, keep encouraging one another”. Encouragement literally means to “put fresh heart” into someone. It acknowledges that in our chosen vocations we make mistakes, but it tries not to dwell on these – it searches for the good in others, rather than concentrating on their weaknesses. Encouragement is built on the premise that we can all change, we can all do better – despite our sinfulness and unworthiness.
Unworthiness- that’s my third word. And it’s especially important for us priests, never to think that we are better than others, more especially chosen or comfortable on a pedestal- even when some good people want to put us up there. I am a sinner, and so are all priests. Sometimes young men say to me “I couldn’t be a priest, I’m too unworthy of it”. I say to them – “precisely the opposite – it is God who calls us, knowing that we are sinners”. God’s grace helps us through and no matter what our vocation, we must trust that God is always with us, despite our failings.
Trust. I choose that word because I have found that without trust in God, I am nothing at all. I love the way that Good Shepherd Sunday is chosen for vocations Sunday. The sheep know the shepherd. They hear and recognise his voice. They trust the shepherd to care for them, to pick them up when they get stuck, to search them out when they are lost and to carry them home. They rest gently to know that the shepherd sleeps across the gate of their sheepfold to protect to them from the danger of wolves and brigands. And it’s the same with us and Christ – our Good Shepherd. No matter what our chosen vocation – to marriage, to the single life, to parenting, to teaching, caring, to being a priest or religious sister or brother – trust in God is essential. It is trust that fuels my final word for today – openness.
Vocation is always open to new challenges, to new aspects of the call. It does not end with the day of ordination or the first “I do” on the wedding day. In fact the opposite. I have found that vocation unfolds gradually; all it needs is our openness and generosity to respond to what God’s will is for us. There’s an old medieval saying – “to those who do what is in them to do, God does not deny his grace”. Those words came to me last week when I spoke to a young nurse who qualified five years ago and who is working with Covid-19 patients in one of our hospitals. “I’m only realising now, she said, that nursing is my vocation from God, and although it’s really difficult and I’m afraid, I thank God for choosing it for me, and me for it”.
Without mentioning it I heard in her testimony all five of my words about vocation:
Gratitude, encouragement, unworthiness, trust and openness. May the Good Shepherd bless her and all those who are searching to find their vocation in life today. Amen.