VERBUM DOMINI

Shepherds and Sheep

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People know their priest. The faithful have a sixth sense when it comes to their shepherd. They know his heart within the first few encounters. They know if he is a prayerful man. They sense his weaknesses and strengths. His celebration of Mass is a window into his soul, for there his worship of God is on display. His manner in the confessional exposes his heart. Is there compassion? Is there the humility of a sinner, himself no stranger to God’s mercy? In his homilies people look for both charity and courage (no one wants a sheepish shepherd). They seek a pastor who loves God and themselves; and loves both well.

Pope Francis has urged priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” It is a wonderful image. It conjures the likeness of a humble priest, one who shares in the life of his people; someone who is aware of their daily struggles, someone they recognize, someone with whom they identify because he smells like them. It is an image that has been fruitful in the lives of many priests, providing direction in ministry. But reading this Sunday’s gospel, we see another side of the priest.

Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd in contrast to the “thieves and robbers.” The sheep gather around him because his voice is unique, and “they do not recognize the voice of strangers.” The Good Shepherd is different than the others. He is different than the sheep. As the one “who lays down his life for the sheep,” he stands apart. He stands apart (not above) as a meeting point. He marks the place for the flock to gather. He is set apart for their service and safety. He is set apart to lead: “he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him.” Ironically, he is different from them so that he might unite them. He is separated for their unity.

A priest ought to smell like his sheep, moving among them with charity and fellowship. Yet he must also bear the fragrance of Jesus the Good Shepherd, a fragrance peculiar to the priest, which all the sheep recognize. A priest must be able to “call his own sheep by name,” but he must call them with the voice of Christ, otherwise they may not recognize him and he may not be able to “lead them out.” For a shepherd to be a shepherd, he needs a flock. For a flock to be a flock, it needs a shepherd. This tension between shepherd and sheep is good. It reminds us that we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to others, and first to Jesus, who is “the gate.”