Most of you will be familiar with the comedy programme Father Ted. It features the life of 3 priests living on Craggy Island, an imaginary parish in Ireland. Each of the priests have been exiled to this island parish for some misdeed or another: Fr Ted because the Lourdes monies was resting in his account, Fr Dougal because he caused chaos involving nuns, who are forever scarred by the experience, and Fr Jack because of his drinking.
The programme follows the fortunes of the three priests, their dealings with one another their parishioners and their rival parish in nearby rugged island, who they are in competition with. Bishop Brennan and priests, strange and weird, pass in and out of the programme. There are some bizarre situations which are hilariously funny.
Some people don’t like Fr Ted because they think it disrespectful to priests. It certainly doesn’t cast us in our best light. But like all satire it can deliver a knock out blow and at the same time make us laugh at ourselves.
Fr Ted and Dougal and Jack, although fictitious characters, are people whom we recognise with all their foibles. The programme exposes weaknesses in the life of the priests, exposes that gap between faith and what people really think and do. It shows the frailty of human beings. It also, sometimes savagely, points the finger at the shortcoming and narrowness of parish & church life.
Just this week there is a furore in the press and media over a short film by a young Scottish Director from Glasgow called Sean McInally, it points the finger and shows that same narrowness in parish and church life. He has made a film about a kiss between 2 young men walking in the park and the different reactions that there are to that kiss. He has a pop at people of faith and how they see it and what they do. Like Fr Ted his comments are humorous and, at the same time incisive and provocative. Already people in our Church don’t get the joke and are writing letters of complaint. I wish before they had done this, they would have checked to see that sometimes homophobia comes from certain sources and we must hold our hands up, just as the film painfully indicates.
The great image that we hear of the Good Shepherd has much to say and inform us about those who would like to be a shepherd in the church. The priest is called, like the Good Shepherd, to lay down his life for his sheep. He is not to be like the one who runs away at the first sign of trouble. And just as the passage says, he is conscious that not all the sheep are his, there are other flocks beyond, out there. in distant hills and far away places.
Despite all our shortcomings, the vagaries of our personalities, so vividly shown in TV programmes like Fr Ted, the priest aims to be like a shepherd who cares for and lays down his life for his sheep. But that aspect of the other flock, those beyond, those out with the flock those that are a long way off, those who have strayed, those who have gone another path must necessarily also be part of his life. The Gospel tells us that they are not to be ignored, cut off, or thought of as not part of us, strangers, foreigners, outsiders – at the end of the day there is only one flock, just as there is only one human family.
We are listening in these words to that universal call of the Gospel. Not something addressed to the few, to the select, to the chosen. The message has no doors, has no walls, it is not to be confined or restricted to the so called worthy, it goes out to the high ways and byways. There is a flock beyond our flock, there are stars and planets beyond our stars planets. It is our job not to raise up the drawbridge, circle the wagons. Our task is to reach out to those beyond us and to invite in to share and be part of, to be open and not closed, to see the good and not the error, to see grace and not sin. St Peter takes up that message in the first reading when he reminds people that Jesus is the saviour of all and the salvation he is offering is love, love for all, not the few or the so called worthy. The solution of our problems, St Peter says, is the love that he offers.
There are millions of people beyond, walking on different paths. In Sean McInally’s film he shows the church at its worst, judgemental and closed minded. Everything we hear of in Jesus seems different from this, its about love and forgiveness and healing and openness and reaching out. We don’t hear banging doors or keys turning in the locks. There are no lists of people getting in and those not getting in. It is a call to universal salvation. the table is set, the seats are there, the feast is prepared. There are many rooms in his house. He goes to the high ways and byways to invite people to the wedding feast. The doors are swung open widely.
Two people kissing in the park, what is that? is it about love or hate? It’s about love – are we no supposed to be all about love. St John reminds us that we are all God’s children in the reading, no matter what.
The priest is able to be a person who unlocks and opens doors. He is able to be someone who welcomes in. He is supposed to be a shepherd who goes out to the highways and byways in search of the lost, to gather in. He is even called on to lay down his life for his sheep that don’t appear to be part of his flock. His life at the end of the day is supposed to mirror that love of a good shepherd who lays down his life and who doesn’t run away at the first sign of trouble.
The Church today is looking for priests who don’t have to be good administrators, intellectual thinkers, it needs people who are shepherds who know how to say that word of forgiveness, who untie knots, who open doors, who forgive, who unblock paths and roads.
Pope Francis has often spoken in these terms – he speaks of it in these terms, “shepherds who smell like the sheep”, who are one with them in their struggles and concerns.
At the last Supper Jesus tells us that to the end of time there will always be a Eucharist. On that same night he gives us a share in his healing and intercessory and priestly life to his apostles, there will always be a priesthood until the end of time.
There will always be a need for the one who lays down his life for his sheep, who cares for a multitude of flocks, who is willing to take that risk to give everything away to gain everything.