In the footsteps of the great Shepherd: The secret happiness of parenting

Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” (Jn 10:27-28)

This year’s Good Shepherd Sunday, which is also the Day of Prayer for Vocations, falls on the day the secular world celebrates Mother’s Day. Mothers are life-giving persons, as is the Good Shepherd: Jesus gives us life that is eternal. Both are responsible for the welfare of those entrusted to them, protecting them, nurturing and leading them. Also, the tender image of the sheep recognizing the voice of the shepherd reminds us of the voice of our own mother, which is so familiar to us and has been since the time we were in her womb. The bond between mother and child is deeply embedded in our bodies and souls.

Being a shepherd is not necessarily an occupation reserved for males. In Biblical times, many women shepherded flocks (e.g., Rachel and Zipporah). Out of the three young shepherds to whom the Virgin of Fatima appeared, two were girls. And in churches in some mountain regions, the Virgin Mary herself is venerated as the Divina Pastora (Divine Shepherdess). As Mother of the Church, she never abandons us in times of difficulties, and through her intercession she leads us all to Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb 13:20). As a matter of fact, every vocation is a call to tend to Jesus’ flock. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told Peter after he had professed his love for the Master. Good Shepherd Sunday, Vocation Day and Mother’s Day are indeed intertwined.

Contrary to what we might think, being a sheep of Jesus’ flock, like being a son or a daughter, is never automatic and implies a choice. “To listen” and “to follow” are verbs which demand availability and total involvement: in fact, Jesus too is the Lamb of God who listens to the Father. Even the relationship with our biological parents cannot be taken for granted, because at a certain point in our lives we need to consciously decide to love them (that is the meaning of the commandment!). It is true that we do not choose our parents, our children or even the people entrusted to our care. However, we are always called to love them in the concrete circumstances of life and to give our life for them. The element of freedom needs to be present to ensure that the relationship between shepherd and sheep, parents and children, us and the people we serve, is based on selfless love and not self-interest.

The dramatic aspect of “free choice to love” is especially present in the experience of adoption. My sister and brother-in-law have adopted two girls, and I know from their experience that adoption is surely one of the most radical experiences of true shepherding.

During the Way of the Cross, presided over by Pope Francis on Good Friday at the Colosseum in Rome, as part of the meditation of the Ninth Station, an adoptive couple shared their experience: “Now there are four of us. For many years there were two of us, and we faced the cross of loneliness and the realization that we would become parents in a way far different from what we had always imagined.  Adoption is the story of a life marked by the pain of loss, healed by acceptance.  But the pain never fully heals.  Adoption is a cross that parents and children carry together on their shoulders, bearing it, trying to alleviate the pain but also embracing it as part of the child’s life.  Still, it hurts to see children suffer because of their past.  It hurts to keep trying to love them without being able to make a dent in their pain.  We have adopted one another.  Every single day, though, we wake up knowing it was worth it; that all our efforts are not in vain; that this cross, for all its pain, hides a secret happiness.”

Adoption could be taken as a model of every relationship, based not on blood, or necessity, or self-interest, but on the conscious decision to share our life with those entrusted to us by God.  It is not surprising that the New Testament addresses us as “adopted children of God” (Eph 1:5; Rm 8:15): we “become” God’s children (Jn 1:13) not automatically, but because God freely chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, and wants us to freely love Him back by serving others in the places where our vocation puts us, be it a family, a parish, an office or a social center. Love implies a choice.

Paraphrasing what that couple said, in our relationship with God, we too freely choose to love one another, to be responsible for one another, and to carry the cross together…and this makes our being mothers, fathers, priests, sisters or any other kind of shepherding worth it, and this cross, for all its pains, hides indeed a secret happiness.

(Photo: satyatiwari at Pixabay)