Smell of the shepherds

In the first Holy Thursday Mass as pontiff, Pope Francis used his gift for the pungent phrase and the vivid image to describe what he saw as the proper characteristics of a good priest: “This is what I am asking you,” he said. “Be shepherds with the smell of sheep.”

Like many of the pope’s pithy expressions, this image is redolent with implications. One doesn’t need to have grown up on a sheep farm to know that the shepherd lives with the flock and guards the flock. He knows when the one sheep is lost even if 99 are found.

I had never heard this expression about “smelling of the sheep” before Pope Francis uttered it, yet it captures the spirit of the great priests I’ve known. They are shepherds, leaders, guides, and yet they are absolutely of the people. They stand beside them in their suffering, they extend mercy to them, and they exhort and encourage them. I’ve found that while the kind of clichéd reverence that once typified Catholics’ regard for their priests has waned, people still sense intuitively who the good priests are and accord them not just respect but love.

Our diocese has had a double whammy recently. A popular and respected priest died suddenly. Another popular and respected priest has been accused of some sort of abuse. The two stories leave us reeling. The loss of any priest, particularly in this time of a growing priest shortage, is a blow, the loss of a beloved and respected confessor and counselor even more so. But while death is inevitable, allegations of scandal only reopen still raw wounds of other failures by other men who betrayed their vocation.

This recent past may be why Pope Francis is not shy in asserting a demanding ethic for his priests and bishops, though arguably no more demanding than that of the High Priest himself. He has made it clear that he does not want clericalists, careerists, harsh taskmasters or Pharisees who lay heavy burdens on the people but do not raise their hand to help them. The perfumes of power, prestige and ambition are not what should characterize the priest, Pope Francis is saying. It should be the smell of the sheep he’s been entrusted with.

Of course, this holds true for anyone in ministry. Indeed, the idea of servant leadership permeates marriage, parenthood and work, as well as all the roles associated with the Church. But the priest is uniquely situated to be a leader by example. And the very best priests are that.

A priest friend has been spending time with his brother priests recently while preaching retreats. He worries that some of the younger guys are feeling that Pope Francis is being particularly critical of them. Many were attracted to the more traditionalist rigor of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s message. Others see the Church as a castle protecting them from the slings and arrows of a hostile culture. They expected to be attacked by that culture. They didn’t expect to hear criticism from their own pope.

This is a generalization, of course. Another friend — a young priest — loved Pope Benedict and loves Pope Francis. He is devoted to the sacred liturgy even while heeding the pope’s challenge to go out to the periphery and to take risks. For this young priest, as for me, Pope Francis is a bracing challenge: He imitates the Lord, who embraced the sinner and the outcast even while pushing his disciples and the good Jews of his time to a new level of vulnerability and service.

It is still early in this pontificate, and Pope Francis has much to teach all of us. I am hopeful that as his papacy begins its second year, Pope Francis will find a way to shepherd his shepherds with mercy and encouragement even while stating his high expectations for them, so that this era of renewal will bear lasting fruit.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.