Living With the Smell of the Sheep

Here is my reflection for the April staff newsletter of CatholicCare Sydney, which explores Pope Francis’ encouragement to be good shepherds.

The good news is that we have a down to earth new Pope who knows that sheep smell. The ‘bad’ news is that he wants us to live with the smell of the sheep. But for CatholicCare Sydney this is really good news too. Let me explain.

In Pope Francis’s homily at the Chrism Mass he urged priests to be “like shepherds living with the smell of the sheep”. It’s a pretty pungent reference for a Mass at which fragrant oil (to be used for anointing) is blessed! He was urging priests to be close to their people, especially those who are poor and marginalised, and to know their daily struggles. I think it is a message that is relevant not just for priests, but for any of us who have leadership positions in church organizations, or who are the face of the church to others.

At CatholicCare we live with the smell of the sheep. We meet people where they are at and we accompany them through the ups and downs. We have direct experience of their lives and hopes. We know the people whom we serve, and they know us.

Many of you are familiar – literally and figuratively – with the smell of poverty, the smell of illness, the smell of death. You might smell a rat when you see the way some of the people you serve are exploited by others. Some of you may have smelt pure evil, and I’m sure all of you have encountered policies and situations that stink! But it is only through living with and knowing these smells that you are able to advocate authentically and effectively for the dignity and aspirations of people who are poor or on the margins.

Perhaps there are times when you end up smelling a bit sheepy yourself, and you may find that not everyone wants to live with the smell of the sheep. When this happens, take consolation from the fact that you are right where Pope Francis is encouraging us to be.

The smell of the sheep is more than the smell of their droppings. They smell of wool and lanolin, warmth and solidarity. People too are more than their problems, limitations or faults. Pope Francis wants us to embrace people in their reality in order to transform that reality through loving service – to be the fragrant oil of anointment.

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