Jean Vanier: Hearing the Good Shepherd’s Voice
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
May 13, 2019

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 4th Sunday of Easter (Year C) on May 12, 2019, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Psalm 100; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; and John 10:27-30.

The Fourth Sunday of Easter is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” However, this year, we’re not going to hear the more typical Scripture passages about sheep and shepherds. Let’s pay special attention to our familiar second reading from the Book of Revelation. There are at least two paradoxes in the passage: (1) the robes are made white by washing them in the blood of the Lamb and (2) we will be shepherded by a Lamb. 

Revelation also says that God will wipe the tears away from those who have been led to the life-giving water. We will rejoice in our loving and merciful God as we are sprinkled with life-giving water.

I told this story to you last year, but here it is again. Many years ago, I spent a day on a sheep farm with some seminarians. Joan, the woman who tended the sheep, told us the name of one particular sheep who had wandered off and instructed us to call it. Yes, shepherds do give their sheep individual names! We called, but the sheep didn’t move towards us, so we called louder, thinking that it hadn’t heard us. Then, Joan called the name of the sheep so softly, I didn’t think it could even hear her. Surprisingly, it immediately started walking towards her! Yes, sheep recognize their shepherd’s voice. As Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.”

If we’re willing to listen for the Good Shepherd’s voice, we’re most likely to hear him in the voices of the people we love most. However, the Good Shepherd speaks to us through a wide variety of people. 

This week, the world lost a man who taught us to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd through unexpected people. As a member of a prominent French Canadian diplomatic family, Jean Vanier grew up with privilege. In 1964, at the age of 35, Vanier founded l’Arche, a community where people with physical and intellectual disabilities live alongside people with no such disabilities. 

Jean Vanier was a man of deep spirituality. He saw people with physical and mental disabilities not as people to be pitied, but as friends, equals, and even teachers. People with disabilities often have the gifts that the rest of us need, since they are aware of their limitations in a way the rest of us desperately try to deny. 

While Vanier advocated for the disabled, he simultaneously revealed the transforming power of living in a community. (As someone who lives in a religious community, I regret not reading any of Vanier’s insights on community living – many of which were published by Paulist Press – until this week!) Vanier wrote: “A community is only being created when its members accept that they are not going to achieve great things, that they are not going to be heroes, but simply live each day with new hope, like children, in wonderment as the sun rises and in thanksgiving as it sets.” Today, there are 154 l’Arche communities in 38 countries around the world, communities that promote that sense of wonderment and thanksgiving to everyone who walks in the door.

A friend of mine, Jennifer Szweda Jordan – who does the lovely StoryCorps interviews with various Paulists – spend a lot of time with a community similar to l’Arche, called Emmaus Community of Pittsburgh. I asked her to share some stories of relating so closely with our disabled sisters. I wish I could share all the stories that she shared with me, but I have to limit myself to her comments about one sister:

“Suzy” is “a pretty tough cookie” who rarely cries. One day, while attending Mass together, both Jennifer and Suzy were moved to tears during a song. Jennifer writes: “When we shared this moment I knew we were connected in the Spirit in a way that transcends intellect, class, everything. We were one in the Body of Christ.” Jennifer also explained how Suzy has embodied Jesus for her. “Suzy has also [been] shepherding me in correcting my occasional sailor language and explained why very well. ‘You can’t say that because I’ll start saying it, and then I’ll say it in front of the kids and that’s not good.’ [You] can’t argue with that logic,” says Jennifer. “[Suzy] works at a daycare!”

In a lot of ways, living an attitude of wonderment and thanksgiving helps us to contemplate the paradoxes of community living, the Paschal mystery we celebrate today, and today’s passages we hear from the Book of Revelation. Another instance of paradox is that the Good Shepherd often speaks most clearly through people with limited abilities. By living interdependently with others, we become more grateful for the gifts that we have. We worship a paradox: the Lamb That Was Slain who lives again!

On Friday, I celebrated Mass with some of the residents of Heritage Park Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in East Austin. I asked them how they hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. And although most of them are challenged with significant mental or physical disabilities, they gave me some great answers. Two of them talked about they could hear Jesus speak to them through the burning of their hearts. I couldn’t help but think of the disciples on the road to Emmaus who recognized Jesus through the burning of their hearts. A few hours later, I read what my friend Jennifer wrote about her relationship with those women in Pittsburgh: “It means everything to me to be on the road to Emmaus with these women and the risen Christ!”

Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain, the Lamb who is our Good Shepherd, encourages us to think creatively in bringing about God’s kingdom on the earth. A kingdom of peace. A kingdom where no one is selfish. A kingdom where everyone’s greatest desire is to love and serve one another. Then, and only then, will every tear be wiped away.  

Jean Vanier wrote: “Peace is the fruit of love, a love that is also justice. But to grow in love requires work – hard work. And it can bring pain because it implies loss – loss of the certitudes, comforts, and hurts that shelter and define us.” 

Or, as my friend Sandy – a retired professor – wrote in this poem about working at an elementary school with a particular young man with disabilities:

I had been so afraid of you.
Then you climbed into my lap
And laid your head on my shoulder.
And once again I learned the meaning of love.

Maybe it’s when those certitudes, comforts, and hurts that shelter and define us are stripped away from us, that we can experience God’s love. When we engage in the hard work of community living – the ongoing questions, sacrifices, and joys of interacting with people who are very different from us – it is then when we can most readily hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.