There is a special collection today for the Good Shepherd Fund. Our Lord is said once to have looked at a crowd of people and been sorry for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So where do we find our shepherds?
You know I had a birthday recently and I thank you for your kindness and generosity. I had a conversation then with Brian Carter and he told me that I was forty-two when I came to Thornton. I was surprised to realise that I had spent more than half my life here. Perhaps you are thinking - we knocked him into shape. Well, at forty-two I was already old enough to be a grandfather and, therefore, reasonably mature. You may have added a few dents and scratches and, maybe, a little polish, too, but it is when you are young and impressionable that you may be shaped by people and places. I am not a Thorntonian. I am a Lancastrian. Lancaster made me. There are two places there in particular that shaped my future. I was an altar boy at the cathedral. There was no rota. We were all on for everything - which meant three times on Sunday. Weekdays were for those who were free. Every day at eight 0‘clock, besides Mass at the High Altar there would regularly be Masses to serve in two, sometimes three, side chapels. So we were kept quite busy. You felt integrated, fully part of the life of the cathedral. The other place was the Low Moor, a public open space as it is today. We lived only two hundred yards away. It was my playground, where I honed my off-breaks and where I learned to play tennis - but I was conscious all the time that this was the place where our martyrs had been executed. In this environment and with an uncle and three cousins priests, I just seemed naturally to gravitate towards priesthood. There was one obstacle. Did I have a vocation? I hadn’t a clue!
A vocation implies that you are called by God. I’d never heard a voice in my ear saying ‘I want you’, so what the heck was a vocation. It was my mother who talked common sense. You volunteer for the Bishop, if he wishes, to call you to be a priest. Your vocation actually comes when at your ordination the bishop says: “Ichoose this man”. I wonder how many young men are put off by the mistaken idea that a vocation is a mystical experience in which you hear a direct call from God. That wrong impression is really something that should be corrected. This week there are three thousand young people from this countryattending World Youth Day, meeting with Pope Francis in Krakow. Our bishops are hoping that a number of them may be inspired to offer themselves for the priesthood or religious life. If they read The Universe last week, as they set off, they may be in a confused state of mind. The whole of the back page is devoted to the story of a Portuguese nun living presently in London. She spent a number of years in Africa. For six month she livedas a refugee with refugees - walking with them for weeks on a journey from the war in South Sudan to a camp in the Congo. As a young girl of fifteen, whilst reading a story of missionaries who had been killed in the Congo she felt within her heart a voice saying “Natalia, I need you” and this voice, she said, repeated itself in my heart three times: “I need you in Africa”. So she went. This kind of direct call is a genuine but extraordinary experience. It should be made clear that the ordinary way is simply to volunteer to be called by the Bishop. It is appropriate today to pray for the young people attending World Youth Day that they may not be confused but simply opento a unique and privileged experience and whatever inspirationcomes from it.