It is pretty well known, especially among priests, that Pope Francis believes that a priest should “live with the smell of the sheep.” The Pope feels that a good priest, as a good shepherd, should smell like his sheep. I think that this has been pretty widely interpreted as meaning that a priest has to “encounter” his people by being close to them and sharing in their lives, their hardships and their struggles. We would say in more familiar language that a priest has to be willing to get his hands dirty, that he needs to be able to get down and dirty in ministering to his people. I think when hearing this phrase of the “smell of the sheep” most people are thinking of sheep as pretty smelly and dirty creatures. The good priest, as a good shepherd, would then be a little smelly and stinky himself.
Certainly a good shepherd lives among his sheep and watches over them, keeping them safe and leading them to fresh pastures. The most common word in greek for good is “agathos”, which would mean good in a practical sense. A good shepherd knows how to shepherd sheep and he takes good care of them. However, when Jesus says in the gospel, “I am the Good Shepherd,” he does not use the word, agathos, but rather the word,”kalos,” which adds the element of beauty to goodness. It is a goodness that is virtuous and honorable. Jesus as the “Good Shepherd” is the “beautiful” shepherd who brings a spiritual element to the task of shepherding his sheep and adds an element of the divine, being a minister of “abundant life.”
I would think of it this way: the hireling abandons his sheep and so puts them in danger and takes life away from them, the good (agathos) shepherd takes care of the sheep and thus preserves their lives, but the good (kalos) shepherd gives his life for his sheep and thus is life-giving and adds an abundance to life. Jesus is the Good (Kalos) Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and who therefore loves them with a greater love, and shows them the true beauty of life that is a life of holiness. The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name and offers them an abundant life of holiness. So I would ask: should the shepherd take on the smell of the sheep or should the sheep take on the smell of the Good Shepherd? The beautiful life of the Good Shepherd is a life of holiness and has an air of the “odor of sanctity” which is a sweet and beautiful smell. So should the priest get down and dirty with the smelly sheep and “live with the smell of the sheep” or should he rather be caught up in the life of Christ, the Good Shepherd, and live with the sweet and beautiful smell of the Good Shepherd and then bring that beautiful and abundant life of virtue and holiness to his sheep? In calling his sheep by name, shouldn’t the good shepherd, in the manner of Jesus, the Good (Kalos) Shepherd, be calling his sheep to a life of holiness and virtue? In this way they would “have life and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10,10)
In this time of restrictions on “gathering,” on this Good Shepherd Sunday, I experience a tension in my call to be the good shepherd, for one of the main responsibilities and characteristics of the good shepherd is that he “gathers” the scattered sheep. The prophet Ezekiel gives us the word of God as he describes his shepherding his people: “As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep. I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark. I will lead them out from among the people and gather them from the foreign lands; I will pasture them upon the mountains of Israel …I myself will give them rest, says the Lord God. The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, the sick I will heal shepherding them rightly.” (Ez 34,12-16) The good shepherd, in the manner of Jesus who fulfills this promise of God to his people, gathers his sheep. He calls them by name and separates them from the sheep that are not his own and he leads them to higher and greener pastures. In this way he forms the “ecclesia,” the greek word for “church.” The church is essentially those who are “gathered” together as a congregation or an assembly. It just feels wrong, as a shepherd, to be threatened with punishment for gathering the sheep when it is “cloudy and dark.” In this cloudy and dark time, shouldn’t the sheep of the Good Shepherd be “gathered” and allowed to be in the presence of the Good Shepherd? I am not advocating for civil disobedience, I am just expressing a tension that I think we all rightfully are experiencing at this time. It is essential to the nature of the Church that we be gathered together on this Good Shepherd Sunday in the presence of Jesus the Good Shepherd. Just sayin’. How long will we remain scattered?