21 Apr 2024


The Washington Post calls him “Britain’s rock-star shepherd”.[1] The “shepherd-author-influencer” with over a hundred thousand social media followers, James Rebanks rose to prominence off the back of his autobiography, The Shepherd’s Life (2015).[2] But why would the diary of a Cumbrian sheep-farmer be a best-seller? Well, for one thing, Rebanks combines the mundane and the imaginative in vividly narrating his life. He descends from a six-century-long line of sheepherders, so it’s in his DNA. It’s his passion. While a student at Oxford, already demonstrating sophistication with the written word, Rebanks couldn’t help but think about his true love: the sheep and fells of the Lake District.[3]

Hearing people speak about their passions can be captivating. And when it’s a new topic, it can be genuinely informative. Of course, shepherding is hardly a novel profession: it’s been around for thousands of years, and it used to be said that the Australian economy rode on the sheep’s back. Yet the industrial-scale farming of modernity, at least in places like Australia, bears little resemblance to traditional shepherding and the art has drifted from modern consciousness. When I’ve asked children preparing for Confirmation what this stick was that I was carrying, I’ve been told it’s my walking stick (I apparently look very old to those kids); another bishop told me he was told it meant he was Little Bo Peep! Part of the charm of Rebanks’ escapades is surely that they are a window into a now largely forgotten way of life.

But not quite forgotten. On Good Shepherd Sunday and various other times, we Christians reflect upon texts like today’s ones and our pastoral theology and practice. There we encounter not the scholar-shepherd James Rebanks but the Saviour-Shepherd Jesus of Nazareth. It wasn’t Aussie Merinos or Cumbrian Herdwicks, Rough Fells and Swaledales that interested Him, but rather the human sheep of every tribe and language. In today’s Gospel (Jn 10:11-18), Jesus describes Himself as “The Good Shepherd”. Here and elsewhere He tells us that a good shepherd is one with an intimate knowledge of those entrusted to his care, dedicated to protecting, leading and caring for them, worthy of their trusting and following him, and yearning to include those not yet in the fold.[4] Above all—and most unlikely for a modern industrial sheep-farmer—the Good Shepherd is willing to seek out the lone lost one and even lay down His life for the sheep.

To be effective, shepherds must know how to communicate with their flock. On his social media account, James Rebanks has video clips of the complex calls he uses with his sheep. Despite the clichés, it takes more than a simple whistle to get sheep moving, for they can be very obtuse and wilful. Human beings can be worse, but Jesus the Good Shepherd uses a very straightforward call signal: He simply says, “Follow me”. He said it to the Galilean fishermen, the tax-collector, the rich young man, and others.[5] The best of them dropped everything and became His ‘disciples’ or ‘followers’.

“Follow me” He said to them; “Follow me” are the very words He spoke to the hearts of our dear neophytes. In choosing to accept His call to discipleship, they too entered the sheepfold this Easter. “Follow me” are the same words He speaks to us all. Discipleship is no set and forget mission: it requires a daily response to a daily call. Good shepherds are relentless and so too are good disciples.

Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus declares that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life (Jn 14:6); He is the Light of the World (Jn 8:12; 9:5; cf. 1:4-5,9); He is the only Gate of the Sheepfold (Jn 10:1). Today He insists that there is only one flock, one true Church. The claims He makes about Himself and His Church are difficult for our tolerant, relativist, increasingly woke age. “There are other sheep of mine not yet of this fold, and these I have to lead as well,” Jesus says. “They too will listen to my voice, so that there is only one flock and one shepherd.” Peter is equally clear in our first reading (Acts 4:8-12): “Of all the names in the world given to humanity, the name of Jesus is the only one by which we can be saved.” These days Peter might be deplatformed by Facebook for being so illiberal and Jesus might be dragged before an anti-discrimination tribunal for making such an exclusivist claims. But what Jesus and Peter said is true.

In the jubilee year 2000, the Vatican declaration Dominus Iesus critiqued the views that all religions are equally valid, that truth in spiritual matters is subjective and pluralistic, that one could have Jesus without the Church, and that we can pick and choose the bits of Church teaching we like and make our own cocktail with other spiritual or secular ideas.[6] Other religions may indeed have seeds or rays of truth in them;[7] the salvific action of Christ extends beyond the visible boundaries of the Church;[8] and we should be neighbourly towards those of other faiths and ready to collaborate with them.[9] Nonetheless, divine revelation commands the obedience of faith, assenting to the whole truth revealed in Scripture and Tradition.[10] It is necessary to assert that salvation is in Christ alone;[11] He is the definitive and complete revelation of God;[12] He is the head of the Church,[13] and so the Church is necessary for salvation.[14] The presence of our newly baptised, confirmed and communicated today is powerful testimony to all this and they now join us in joyfully proclaiming Christ, His Gospel and His Church to all the world.

Good Shepherd Sunday is also the World Day of Prayer for Vocations, when we thank God for all those who dedicate their lives to tending His flock and ask that newcomers might answer God’s call to this work. In his message for today, Pope Francis recalls the many kinds of sheep in the ecclesial sheepfold, the different states of life by which the faithful participate in His loving plan.[15] It can be found in the loving and gracious relationships of spouses and parents, tending especially to their own ‘lambs’. It can be found in those who use their gifts to build a more just and equitable society, protecting and improving the lives of the ‘lost sheep’, the vulnerable and forgotten. It can be found in those consecrated men and women—communities of nuns and brothers—who accept God’s call to a life of prayer and service. It can be found in those who accept the call to ordained priesthood, leading and serving, sanctifying and teaching, as good shepherds.

Throughout the RCIA process, our new Catholics have experienced the solicitude of lay people, clergy and religious for them, and today we express our gratitude to the RCIA office, the parish teams and others who’ve contributed to their journey of faith. Whatever our calling, it is ultimately about discipleship, about responding to Good Shepherd’s call to “Come, follow me”, and then drawing others to do the same—for the name of Jesus is the only one by which we can be saved.

Short Remarks to Neophytes 2024

St Mary’s Cathedral College hall, Fourth Sunday of Easter Year B, 21 April 2024

Dear Neophytes, our newest Catholic Christians, welcome brothers and sisters. It has been a privilege for all of us to witness a defining moment in your lives on earth and the life to come. Above all, of course, we give thanks to Christ to whose life, death and resurrection you have been joined, and whose identity and destiny is now yours forever.

In my homily today I mentioned Jesus the Good Shepherd’s simple call signal to the sheep fold of humanity: “Follow me”. Well, you are now part of the spiritual body that consists of more than 1.4 billion Catholics, all seeking to follow him in prayer and sacrament, in word and deed.

The last week has been a tough one for our communities, our city and nation. There has been a lot of talk about social division, declining trust, mounting fear and even violence. You know that the antidote to such ills is Jesus Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. Keep growing closer to Him by learning more about Him and about your Catholic Faith, asking your questions and contemplating the mysteries in Scripture and Tradition. Keep growing closer to Him, through that conversation that is prayer and that devotion that is liturgy. Keep growing closer to Him, through reaching out to others, sharing your faith with them and seeking to assist them in their needs.

Do these things and the Italian papers might next year be reporting “A Sydney è boom di conversioni continua: a Pasqua ci saranno mille battesimi!”—The boom in conversions continues in Sydney: A thousand will be baptised at Easter.

Congratulations again new Christians! Welcome to the family of God! God bless you always! 

[1] William Booth, “He is Britain’s shepherd-author-influencer: He wants to transform farming to save the planet,” The Washington Post 28 August 2021.

[2] James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District (London: Penguin, 2015).

[3] Sam Knight, “The tweeting of the lambs: A day in the life of a modern shepherd,” The New Yorker 27 April 2018.

[4] e.g. Mt 2:6; 9:36; 18:10-14; 25:32; 26:31; Mk 6:34; 14:27; Lk 15:1-7; Jn 10:1-21; cf. Ps 23; Ezek 34:11-16; Heb 13:20; 1Pet 2:25; Rev 7:17.

[5] Mt 4:19; 8:22; 9:9; 10:38; 16:24; 19:21; Mk 1:17; 2:14; 8:34; 10:21; Lk 5:27; 9:23,59; 14:27; 18:22; Jn 1:43; 8:12; 10:27; 12:26; 21:19,22.

[6] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus: Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, 6 August 2000, 4,6,9,23 etc.

[7] DI 8,12; Vatican Council II, Gaudium et spes: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965) 22; Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (1965) 2.

[8] DI 12,20-21; Vatican Council II, Ad gentes: Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church (1965) 2,7; St John Paul II, Redemptoris mission: Encyclical on the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate (1990) 10.

[9] Vatican II, Nostra Aetate.

[10] DI 7; Rom 1:5; 16:26; 2Cor 10:5-6.

[11] DI 14,22; Jn 3:16-17; 1Tim 2:4-6.

[12] DI 5,10,13; Vatican II, Gaudium et spes 10; cf. Mt 11:27; Jn 1:18; 14:6,9; Acts 4:12; 10:36-43; 1Cor 8:5-6.

[13] Col 1:18; Eph 1:23

[14] DI 16-20; Vatican II, Lumen gentium 14; Ad gentes 7; Unitatis redintegratio 3.

[15] Pope Francis, Message for the 61st World Day of Prayer for Vocations, 21 April 2024.


Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of the fourth Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday. This morning we joyfully welcome back our neophytes who were elected for Baptism here at the beginning of Lent, were baptised into the family of God in their parishes at Easter, and are now experiencing the stage of mystagogia when they enrich their faith with learning, worship and outreach to others. Today we greet you no longer as Christians-elect or Catholics-to-be but as fully-fledged brothers and sisters in Christ, acknowledging our communion as one spiritual family.

You are international stars, by the way. The Catholic Weekly report of our bumper crop of catechumens and candidates[i] made international headlines.[ii] The Italian paper Avvenire reported “A Sydney è boom di conversioni: a Pasqua ci saranno 266 battesimi” (a boom in conversions in Sydney: there will be 266 baptisms at Easter).[iii]

That was great news for our city. Yet Easter had barely passed and we had the tragic news of two monstrous attacks in our city. A few miles from here, in Bondi Junction, innocent shoppers, even a baby, were attacked and some were killed. Then in Wakeley, a bishop and priest were attacked in church, and police bore the brunt of recriminations. In Australia we are not accustomed to such things. Every person, be they minister of religion or congregant, should be free to worship without fear, and today we recommit ourselves to being that sort of society. We pray for the dead, for the injured, grieving, traumatised or angry, and for social harmony.

Concelebrating with me today is Fr Juan Anderson, a Sydney priest who has devoted most of his priestly life to serving in the far-flung missions in Iquitos Peru. To everyone here this morning, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome.

[i] George Al-Akiki, “Rite of Election 2024: New Catholics, Easter wouldn’t be the same without your ‘yes’,” Catholic Weekly 20 February 2024; Darren Ally, “New Sydney Catholics flock to Cathedral with RCIA numbers tripling in three years,” Catholic Weekly 15 February 2024.

[ii] E.g. J-P Mauro, “Australian archdiocese to welcome enormous catechumen class,” Aleteia 29 March 2024.

[iii] Andrea Galli, “A Sydney è boom di conversioni: a Pasqua ci saranno 266 battesimi,” Avvenire 23 March 2024.