Each year, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is a day of prayer for vocations to the priesthood and religious life and the Gospel reading for the day is always taken from the long passage in Saint John’s Gospel where Jesus offers himself to us as the Good Shepherd.

Sheep-rearing was part of the DNA of the Jewish people. The founding fathers of the nation, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were shepherds; so was Moses; so was King David. But Jesus isn’t comparing himself with any of these. The sort of shepherd he has in mind is the small hill-farmer working for himself, or the labourer working for rubbish wages for the owner of the flock. We know this because of the way in which Jesus describes the sorts of things that the work of a shepherd involves. Much as today, sheep were reared in rough terrain on hills and mountainsides, often far from human habitation. The life of the shepherd was lonely, dirty and uncomfortable. The only shelter was usually a roofless sheep-fold made of rough stones or branches and thorns, and here the shepherd and his flock would spend the night. Each evening, the shepherd would count the sheep in and he really would have known every one of them individually, just as Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage. If one was missing, a committed shepherd, at least, would go looking for it, sometimes risking his life because of wolves, bears or lions. Once the sheep were all safely in and accounted for, the shepherd would examine them, one by one, to see if they had any injuries that needed treatment and he would dress and bind up any wounds. He would spend the night camped across the narrow, open doorway to protect the flock from attacks by wild animals and sheep-rustlers. Needing to be ever on the alert, he can have slept only fitfully as he lay beside his sheep and their droppings. It is an image of priesthood that fits well with the Holy Father’s likening of the Church to a field hospital, asking that we should ‘go outside looking for people where they live, and where they suffer, and where they hope.’

But it is not the only view of priesthood around. Several years ago, I met up with a former seminarian I knew who, despite having recently completed his formation programme in the local seminary, had been told by his bishop that he was not going to be ordained. After recovering from the shock of that he decided to join the police instead. I asked him why, because he was very shy, nervous, and not my idea of a policeman. ‘Because I want people to respect me,’ he replied. The good news is that the police rejected him. The bad news is that when, a couple of years later, he moved to another diocese, his new bishop accepted him for the priesthood and ordained him.

That man’s approach to priesthood – that a clerical-collar gives you the right to command respect and that a chasuble is some kind of armour-plated PPE guarding you from being questioned or challenged – is far from being an isolated case. As I have written before, when, a year and a half ago, Cardinal Nicholls was about to ordain some deacons and priests, he felt the need to instruct them that they were not being ordained so as to be ‘constantly giving orders’. And he went on to say, ‘…We live in an age of self-entitlement… This is not the path we chose, but it is the temptation we face. A culture of entitlement has no place among us.’ Why, I still cannot help asking, did Cardinal Nicholls feel impelled to say all this to men who should have had any such ideas of Holy Orders knocked out of them in the seminary and during their years of formation?

And why, too, when speaking to seminarians and novices in 2013, did the Holy Father need to say, “And, if you like that beautiful car, think about how many children are dying of hunger,” before urging them to choose humbler means of transport, like cheaper cars, or using the bus or riding a bike?

These admonitions from Pope and Cardinal about priestly entitlement, privilege and lifestyle are not the words of men who think that all that is wrong with some of those offering themselves for service in the Church are a few rough edges that can be readily smoothed off. The Holy Father has gone further, linking such vices to clericalism and the appalling abuses that have followed from it. Nor would he have called a synod aimed at bringing lay people into the governance of the Church unless he considered that there was something systemically wrong with the Church as it currently operates. Let us make no mistake about what that means: he is targeting a serious malfunctioning of the Church due to the mindset and practice of the clergy who control it from top to bottom.

Today, as I said, is a day of prayer for vocations, but when we heed Jesus’ lament, ‘The harvest is rich, but the labourers are few,’ let us remember that what the Lord of the harvest wants are not rank-conscious foremen who love throwing their weight around, nor jobsworths parading their dog-collars and basking in ‘respect’ from the laity. No, what are needed are labourers ready to pull off their vestments and roll up their sleeves to minister in the field hospital where they will find themselves rubbing shoulders with Jesus.

Deacon Seán