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Cathedral of Rimini
Fourth Sunday of Easter, 29 April 2007


The Fourth Sunday of Easter is now commonly called "Good Shepherd Sunday" because of the Gospel passage in which the allegory or similitude of the shepherd appears. In this liturgical context we celebrate the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

The brief Gospel passage just proclaimed is framed in the context of Chapter 10 of John where Jesus, explicitly addressing himself to those who do not believe, gives a definition of himself and manifests his divine being: "I am the Good Shepherd".

"I am" is a form of revelation that recalls the Name of God, Saviour, given to Moses. Jesus applies it to himself. It is typical of John to have Jesus say: I am. I am the vine, I am the light of the world, I am the bread of life, etc. (8: 28, 58; 13: 19: cf. 6: 20; 18: 5-8).

I am the Good Shepherd, the kind shepherd, the true shepherd, different from those who are not because they do not look after the flock; they are mercenaries who run away in the face of danger and abandon the flock, and the flock disperses and is lost. Jesus, in fact, clarifies this for his listeners: "You do not believe because you are not my sheep, you follow another shepherd, death".

In point of fact, in the East, the shepherd was in no way idyllic; he was a rough nomad, able to defend his flock against wild animals and predators (cf. I Sm 17: 34, 35). Jesus pronounces these words thinking of the tragic combat of his passion when he will hand over his life and lose it so that the flock may live (cf. Jn 10: 12, 15). And with this he wants to strengthen the faith of his fearful disciples: the power of the Good Shepherd is greater than that of any thief or robber.

The Church has as the centre of its faith a powerful God, but above all a God who loves man so much as to give his own life so that man may live. Let it not be forgotten, therefore, that love makes one vulnerable, even the Lord. And with this supreme act the shepherd indissolubly links himself to his flock.

In today's passage Jesus affirms: "My sheep know my voice and I know them and they follow me". The reference to sheep does not mean a passivity of the gregarious spirit that we could attribute to today's mentality; instead, the Biblical image is exactly the opposite.

The three verbs pronounced by Jesus are very personalized action verbs: to listen, to know and to follow - with which he indicates the movement of faith that can fill the questions of the full and happy life to which we aspire. Through this constellation of words linked together by a luminous and spiritual thread one can construct the entire story of the Christian vocation. In particular, as we will see shortly, we can find this drawn in the journey that brought the new Bl. Maria Rosa Pellesi to holiness.

"To listen": this is an essential attitude in the relationship between two people. The prophets have not ceased to invite Israel to listen: "Hear, O Israel!" (Dt 6: 4; cf. Am 3: 1; Jer 7: 2). To listen is the beginning of faith.

John presents Jesus as the Word - the Word that the Father speaks to the world: "This is my beloved Son... listen to him!" (Mt 17: 5). To listen in the biblical sense is full of the resonance that implies joyful adherence, obedience, choosing life.

Here is where an intimate and profound communion between Christ and the one who follows him is established. This is defined by a great biblical word: "to know", which involves the mind, heart and action of the whole human person so as to become, on the lips of the Johannine Jesus, the very definition of eternal life: "Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent, Jesus Christ" (Jn 17: 3).

Listening to Christ, therefore, leads to make oneself known and to know God in the sense just recalled, in order to follow Christ, the one Shepherd, in a daily and continuous following, of whom the saints are wonderful and concrete proof.

"To follow", therefore, is another verb that is in no way passive! Nothing assumes such liberty as following because it is cleaving with one's whole person to the other. It is attaching oneself in a binding manner, even to recognizing the voice, steps, wishes, even to entering into communion without return, even to embracing the destiny of the other because the one who loves cannot be faithful, even happy that the other determines his life, even to the extreme consequences of love.

Truly reassuring, also, is Jesus' assurance: "My sheep will never be lost and no one can take them from my hand". Neither from his hand nor the Father's. We are in the best hands that there can be: the hands of the Lord, the same hand stretched out to the sick, with which he embraced children, that he extended to Peter so he would not drown in the sea, the hand that he raised with the Bread of Life at the Last Supper, the hand he stretched forth on the Cross, the hand wounded by the nails and shown to Thomas.

All of us, dear faithful, have been placed in the hands of the Good Father, in the hands of the Kind Shepherd, and we are called to reach those who have preceded us in the vitality of faith "with palm branches in their hands" (Rv 7: 9). It is the palm that Jesus has consigned through the Church to his spouse Rosa Pellesi, beatifying this perhaps little-known Religious and which can now spread the fascination that eminates from the journey of this Franciscan Virgin.

Rosa Pellesi always remained in those hands of the Crucified and Risen Lord, and the hands of the Son of the Living God made her stand, be supported, without ever slipping away or acting so that she would never in any way loosen Christ's hold, by whom she was upheld, becoming a masterpiece of humanity and love, of abandonment and obedience, of gentleness and strength.
The Word of God in today's liturgy is the ideal frame, as if chosen on purpose, in which to place the Bl. Maria Rosa Pellesi, which illuminates the holiness of her life, clothing it in Gospel light.

In the long 27 years of life in the sanatorium, Maria Rosa was obliged to endure a forced confinement and heroically welcomed her bodily breakdown, which spread within her the abyss of the mystery of the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ and thus called her to pass through the great tribulation, allowing her garments to be washed white with the blood of the Lamb to whom she was unreservedly united, her holocaust, according to what was presented in the Second Reading, the splendid account of Apocalypse.

It is enough to think that this enchanting young woman of Pigneto was pierced not hundreds but thousands of times via thoracic surgery in order to extract pleural fluid without ever - the doctors still living testify - letting a single moan come out of her mouth.

She was identified, in the silence of Jesus, with the mute Lamb led to the slaughter, according to Isaiah's narrative: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth" (Is 53: 7).

As a symbol of her crucifixion in the flesh there remained stuck in her thorax for 17 years a fragment of a needle the doctor mistakenly broke during the daily extraction, which she, humble lamb - as she desired to be -, called "my lance". Her crucifixion, in the image of Sr Maria Rosa described here, is symbolized by the crown of thorns that with opportune intuition is placed on her chest in the act of embracing it to her heart.

St Paul reminds us in the First Reading we just heard: "I have placed you as a light to the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to all peoples".

Bl. Maria Rosa, although a patient in a poor hospital, moved through humanity with the missionary yearning of Christ and said: "I want to embrace the world", and dying, exclaimed: "I send a kiss to all of humanity".

It is her missionary cry of love; it is the completion in herself of what is lacking in the passion of Christ and to the wish of Christ that we are all one in him.

If there is an immediate sign of thanksgiving by Sr Maria Rosa, it is surely the smile that became her first work of charity to all who lived with her, but it also translates into a humble and strong human gesture of welcoming, of patience, of service that required a high price of abnegation and gift of self: "My heart is on the rack even if I am happy, so, so, so happy; I began my life in the sanatorium, weeping, but I have asked the Good God to end it singing his mercies".

The procession of holy Virgins that follow the Lamb wherever he goes has a new presence: Bl. Maria Rosa, who is a certain sign that the path she followed truly leads to authentic holiness.
Bl. Maria Rosa, placed by the Church on a candelabra, invites us to hope and not allow ourselves to be nailed by our limitations and faults, because God leaves nothing unfinished.

Let us also pray as she herself prayed: "May the Lord Jesus act in me in order to build upon the ruins of my misery, that masterpiece which he has willed from eternity": the masterpiece of evangelical perfection, the masterpiece of one's sanctification.