4th Sunday of Easter C

There is not a lot in this Gospel but what is there matters.  Jesus says his sheep know his voice.  And I imagine sheep should know the voice of their shepherd.   Otherwise, how do they get to where they need to go?  We all know the voices of our shepherds for they have shaped us and made us who we are.  I could never forget the voice of my mother or the sound of her laughter.  Most of us are blessed by the voices of our shepherds, not just parents, but friends, teachers and coaches.  Their voice makes an indelible impression hopefully of caring, generosity and life.  But all voices have an impact and we know all too well that some cut, hurt, bully and bludgeon.  What is the sound of our voice in the world?  How is it heard?

When I was in seminary we had to choose a pastoral assignment and I ended up at Bethlehem House, a home for intellectually disabled adults.  When I met my supervisor Dee, who became a mentor to me, she asked how I had ended up there.  I told her I chose last and she said, “That’s how everyone ends up here.  But you will never regret it.”  She cold not have been more right.  I volunteered there for three years after my course and the members were the gift bearers at my first mass.  I would come after a night at Bethlehem House and ask the other seminarians, who all had hospital assignments, how was their day.  They would say it was o.k.   Then I would ask them, “Did everyone hug you and tell you they loved you?”  They would say no and I would conclude, “I must be much better at my job than you are at yours.”

I have been thinking about Bethlehem House this week because it was inspired by Jean Vanier who passed away this week.  His is a remarkable story. He was born to a devoutly Catholic, prominent Canadian family and his father was Governor General of Canada.  Some who have told his story say it is as if the Kennedy family had brought forth Mother Theresa. He was in the midst of a successful naval career, but felt something was missing.  He sought it by earning his doctorate in Philosophy in France and was teaching at the University of Toronto, but had still not found the answer to his ultimate question.  A French Dominican priest suggested he tour the asylums of France for the disabled people taken in by the government.  He saw people “cared for” in way that animals could not be treated in our day.  He saw basic needs ignored and grown men chained to walls. He could not shake the sound of their screams.  He opened a dilapidated house and lived with Raphael and Phillipe, determined to do something for them.  But he would never use that kind of language again.  He soon realized that this new community was his place of healing.

He called the home L’Arche, for the Ark, that place of salvation.  There are now 147 houses in 35 countries where the abled and disabled live together in community and equality.  A place where people are listened to and cared for, encouraged and told a story of their own beauty they might never have heard.  All members of the community are one family dwelling in God’s goodness.  They witness to each other’s brokenness, find redemption in relationship and healing in community and the abled are as transformed as the disabled.  Jean Vanier was a witness that not only should every life be protected and valued.  He showed every life is beautiful.

I heard him speak once at World Youth Day in Toronto.  I had come to see two future saints, St. John Paul II and St. Jean Vanier.  He spoke about our capacity, barely utilized, to be compassionate, to be healed through love, to be stronger through community.  I told my students whom I brought that I believed everything he said and if he did not say it, I was suspicious of it.  I wondered why the voice of this gentle, thin and elegant man moved me so and then I got it.  In his voice was the timbre of Christ’s voice.  For it was a voice that drew people together, that healed, lifted up and gave a sense of our beauty.  Just as Jesus did.  The voice of Christ may come from many angles, but it strikes only at the place where we know we are loved and are called to love.

Hundreds of people will hear and be shaped by our voice – family, friends, colleagues and parishioners.  It will be heard at work, at the dinner table and in the cafeteria.  We can speak many different ways, but we know they only yearning for one voice – the voice of the good shepherd.  It is the voice that has been breathed deeply into us at baptism, nourished at the table of Eucharist and confirmed in the Holy Spirit. We need only to speak it and the world will be changed.

Jean Vanier was also a prolific author.  My first bool of his was Community and Growth if you want to check it out.