19 April 2013

'My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.' Sunday Reflections, 4th Sunday of Easter Year C

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

Gospel John 10:27-30 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

Jesus said: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.’

I know nothing about tending sheep and until I looked at the video above never quite understood the reality of the words of Jesus in today's gospel:  ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me'.

An extraordinary example of the power of words is a story involving Fr Willie Doyle SJ, the army chaplain who was killed in 1917 in Belgium during the Great War. Some years before the War he was giving a retreat to a community of nuns in Ireland. He got a telegram on the last day from his Provincial Superior telling him to get back to Dublin immediately so that he could catch the boat for England that night. When Fr Doyle got to Dublin the Provincial showed him a telegram he had received from the governor of a prison in England: Please send Fr William Doyle SJ to D ___ Prison. Woman to be executed tomorrow asks to see him. The message was a mystery to both priests but Fr Doyle left for England immediately.

When he got to the prison at 5am the Governor told Fr Doyle that Fanny Cranbush wanted to talk to him. She was a prostitute who had got involved in a murder and was to pay the penalty. When she first arrived in jail she said she didn't need any minister of religion. But a few days before the execution she told the Governor that she wanted to see a particular priest. She didn't know his name or where he lived. All she could say was that a couple of years before this he had been in the town where the prison was giving some kind of 'mission'.

The good Governor asked local priests who this might be and this led to the two telegrams.

Fr William Doyle SJ (1873 - 1917)

Fanny herself, who welcomed Father Doyle with joy, reminded him that one night, during the mission, he had come across her on the street as he was heading back to where he was staying and she was looking for customers. He spoke to her kindly and said, My child, aren't you out very late? Won't you go home? Don't hurt Jesus. He loves you. He also gave her a book.

She did go home, gave up her 'trade' for a while but hunger drove her back to it and to worse.  In prison, as her execution approached, the words Don't hurt Jesus. He loves you came back to her. When Fr Doyle arrived Fanny asked him to tell her more about Jesus. Won't you set me on the road that leads to him? she asked.

Fr Doyle baptised her and was then able to arrange to celebrate Mass with her, her first and last, and he accompanied Fanny to the scaffold.

You can read the full story here on pages 16 to 19 under the title Snatched From the Brink.

The story of Fanny finding her loving Saviour through the kind words of a stranger is to me a great expression of God's mercy, something that Pope Francis has spoken about a number of times. (I wonder if the Pope is familiar with the life and death of his saintly fellow Jesuit?) Fanny heard the voice of the Good Shepherd through the gentle words of Fr Doyle. His Provincial Superior and the Governor of the Prison were also 'Good Shepherds'. Fanny realised that Jesus really did know her and she wanted to follow him. She went joyfully to her death knowing that she was to experience the truth of the words Jesus speaks to us today:  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. Through God's loving mercy and Father Doyle's great love for sinners she was 'snatched by the hand of Jesus, not out of it.

And Jesus, the Risen Lord, speaks those same words to us in Mass and gives himself as the Bread of Life as he gave himself to Fanny when she made her First and Last Holy Communion before entering into the Eternal Communion that is heaven.

Antiphona ad communionem

Surréxit Pastor bonus, 
qui ánimam suam pósuit pro óvibus suis, 
et pro grege suo mori dignátus est, alléluia.

Additional text in Lhéritier’s setting: 

Et enim Pascha nostrum immolatus est Christus;
itaque epulemur
in azymis sinceritatis 
et veritatis. Alleluia.

Communion Antiphon

The Good Shepherd has risen, 
who laid down his life for his sheep 
and willingly died for his flock, alleluia.

Translation of additional text:

And truly for our Easter offering Christ was sacrificed;
therefore let us feast
on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.

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