Last year I saw a movie I’d been wanting to see for a while, called Of Gods and Men. It’s a French film made in 2010, which centres on the Cistercian monastery of Tibhirine, Algeria, where nine French monks lived alongside the largely Muslim population, until seven of them were kidnapped and assassinated by Islamic extremists in 1996 during the Algerian Civil War.
In the film we are shown how the monks’ peaceful routine of prayer, medical assistance, and community interaction is interrupted by the threat of Islamic terrorists. When the abbot declines the protection of the corrupt civil authority, the monks are initially divided on the question of whether to stay or flee Algeria. However, despite the growing danger, the monks eventually come to a consensus on the importance of maintaining their commitment to live among—and minister to—the local population that had come to depend upon them so much, even when faced with possible violence and death.
There’s a scene where they vote amongst themselves and agree to stay, despite the danger, which I must admit got me a bit teary-eyed. They realise that their call to follow Christ—even to the Cross—and to serve those he has given them, is more important than even this-worldly notions of safety. It’s a beautiful example of courageous discipleship, made all the more powerful because it is a true story.
It reminded me of a scene from a rather different movie called Arrival (2016), in which a skilled linguist named Louise is enlisted by the U.S. Army to discover how to communicate with aliens who have arrived on Earth, in the midst of considerable tension.
(Spoiler alert!) The more Louise learns the aliens’ language, the more she begins to take on board elements of their perception of time (which is not as linear as ours), and in so doing she begins to experience “memories” of things that have yet to happen. This unique perspective allows her to resolve the growing tensions among the different countries that have received the various alien ships.
However, throughout the film, she also grows closer to her co-worker Ian, who was also enlisted to help communicate with the aliens. Through the film we are shown brief scenes of Louise with a sick daughter who eventually dies of her illness, and towards the end of the movie she realises that these are “future memories” – that she will eventually marry Ian, and their daughter will die as a teenager, and that he will leave her as a result.
There’s beautiful scene at the end of the movie, as we see them falling in love in the present, and Louise finds herself at peace with the situation, and refuses to run from it. We hear her think to herself: “Despite knowing the journey and where it leads, I embrace it, and I welcome every moment of it.”
Why am I mentioning this?
Both of these scenes very much moved me, because in a certain way they resonated with my own call – yes, to the priesthood, but first of all to be a follower of Christ. I may not know the specifics, but the moment I decided to follow Christ, I knew it would mean the Cross. But it also means that Christ is with me… and that I embrace.
Though we probably aren’t being called to martyrdom like the monks in Algeria, we’re all aware of the challenges of trying to follow Christ in our present day and age. And despite knowing this ahead of time, we’re invited to embrace our call, and to welcome all that Christ gives us through it.
Due to the Gospel passages assigned each year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday”, which is traditionally used as a chance to promote and pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. However, our primary vocation—which we all share—is that of a follower of Jesus.
Christ is our Good Shepherd, and to the degree that we are called to be shepherds for others, we will be good only to the degree that we allow the one Good Shepherd to live in us and through us. And all of us have been called to allow Christ to live in and through us, in the various situations of our lives.
Ultimately, we do not choose God – it is always God who chooses us, and draws us into his embrace—sometimes whether we want it or not! The great adventure of our faith can be quite daunting at first glance, and as we start to realise what it might mean for our life we can be tempted to flee. However, as we settle-in to this courtship, we begin to realise that we are nourished and cared for in ways we could not possibly have imagined, and this allows us to embrace it willingly.
Note that when Jesus called the first disciples, he didn’t say “be good” or “be nice” or “be respectable” – he simply said “follow me”. Being a disciple is not first and foremost about a particular moral code or set of beliefs, as important as these things are. No, the primary task of a disciple of Jesus… is to follow him. Jesus models the path of holiness for us, and he calls us to follow his lead.
Of course, whether or not we admit it, we all tend to stray from the path in various ways. So much in our world stands in need of renewal. So many hearts have been handed over to hatred and despair; so many lives to the enticements of evil. And so the Lord calls to us again today, just as he called to the first disciples on the lake, and says, “Follow me!”
If we are heading down a path of entitlement or habitual sin, or if we remain in the pain of past hurts, refusing to forgive – the Lord gently calls to us and says, “Follow me!”
If we have closed our eyes to the plight of the suffering ones in our midst – the lonely, the refugee, the homeless, the unborn – the Lord asks us to open our eyes and says, “Follow me!”
And if we have closed our hearts to hope – if we have become cynical with life, or grown weary in our praise of God, or just find the trials and tribulations of life too much to bear – the Lord gently caresses our overly-cautious hearts and says, “Follow me!”
Friends, the Kingdom of God advances today—just as it did 2,000 years ago—by the generous response of believers to the Lord’s gracious call. And the path towards the renewal of the world begins in our churches, in our homes, and in our hearts.
Remember, ours is not one of the religions of the book—even though we do love the book. No, ours is a religion of a Person, and he patiently calls us by name. Our task is simply to allow ourselves to fall in love with our Good Shepherd, and to let this impact our whole life. Be warned – it will cost you your whole life, but in return you be given life of a kind you would not have thought possible.
So I pray today for all of you, that your trust in the Lord may grow and that you strive to follow him with your whole life. And if there is anyone reading this whom the Lord might be calling to follow him in a special way as a priest or consecrated religious—or if the Lord is perhaps calling one of your children in this way—know that our God will not be outdone in generosity. He matches anything we offer and then some. So do not be afraid – open you hearts to him, and be generous. Strive to follow the Lord with courage and fidelity—embrace all that he has in mind for you—so that he may use you as his instrument in his glorious work of salvation.
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A few notices and links:
– In addition to the 11am Mass each Sunday, the Cathedral is also streaming daily Mass from Monday to Friday at 12.10pm on the same platforms:
– St Vincent de Paul is running a three-week food drive to stock up on supplies for their Emergency Assistance program. You are welcome to drop off items listed in this link at the parish office and we will deliver them to the nearest drop off hub: https://www.vinnieswa.org.au/vinnies-drive-and-drop-hubs/
If you or someone you know is in need of emergency help with food, rent, utility bills, etc. please call Vinnies between 9am–11:30am weekdays on 1300 794 054.
– Since we’re celebrating Good Shepherd Sunday (a day when we’re encouraged to pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life), here’s a song I wrote not long before my ordination: https://youtu.be/sNjZ5-Wx-5c
Check out www.perthpriest.org for more info on the priesthood, and here’s a prayer for vocations which I encourage you to include in your daily prayers:
Almighty and eternal God, in your unfailing love you never fail to provide ministers for your Church. We pray for those whom you call to serve the Church in Perth as priests and religious. Grant them courage, and inspire in them a generous response to your call. Send forth workers into your harvest, so that the Gospel is preached, the poor are served with love, the suffering are comforted, and your people are strengthened by the sacraments. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
– Speaking of prayers, Pope Francis has encouraged us all to pray the Rosary during the month of May, with a couple of extra prayers for those suffering due to the present pandemic: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/pope/news/2020-04/letter-on-the-month-of-may-full-text.html
– Here’s a video I recorded this week for Catholic Youth Ministry, in which I discuss an opportunity that the present solitude gives us: https://youtu.be/vr1UuWXfQ5A
– Here’s part one of a great new series aimed at young people who are searching for meaning in their life, called “The Search”: https://vimeo.com/413804111
– As some of you know, a number of our parishioners have been collecting stamps to donate to the Presentation Sisters, who sell them to raise funds for their charitable work among poor children in Thailand, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines. Many thanks to those who have generously contributed!
– And lastly, for a glimpse of the beauty of Catholicism for this week, here’s some highlights from Pope Francis’ election to the papacy back in 2013 (I was in the crowd!): https://youtu.be/tCKpuA9qdNc