Men who spend a lot of time around animals tend to pick up certain qualities of those animals. Smells, in particular, can cling rather stubbornly. Take an pig farmer, for example. (We’ll call him “Finn.”) Should Finn wish to woo a lady (we’ll call her “Maggie”) he might consider using some fruity soaps to mask the porky scent:
Of course, the whole point of being a pig farmer is to raise pigs. Fruity soaps or not, if Finn didn’t smell at least a little like pigs, one might have reason to suspect he was doing something wrong.
Which brings me to the Pope’s homily at the Chrism Mass this morning.
Speaking mostly to his brother priests, Pope Francis offered a beautiful reflection on the imagery of anointing in the readings of today. He emphasized that the priest is set apart—anointed—precisely for the sake of those he is called to serve:
The precious oil which anoints the head of Aaron does more than simply lend fragrance to his person; it overflows down to “the edges”. The Lord will say this clearly: his anointing is meant for the poor, prisoners and the sick, for those who are sorrowing and alone. The ointment is not intended just to make us fragrant, much less to be kept in a jar, for then it would become rancid … and the heart bitter.
Priests, the Holy Father insisted, must “go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all.” When he shepherds his flock, the priest brings with him the fragrance of his anointing—“the fragrance of the Anointed One, of Christ.”
But that’s not all. A good priest, like a good shepherd, knows his flock. He spends time with them; he lives among them; he shares in their cares and concerns, no matter how trivial they seem. In return, he receives the love and prayers of the people. He receives the gratitude of those he enriches through his ministry. He receives the joy and peace that come from doing the work of the Lord. But there is something else he receives—the telltale sign of a man who lives among his flock, who knows “the realities of their everyday lives, their troubles, their joys, their burdens and their hopes.”
“I call you to this,” said Pope Francis to his priests, “Be shepherds with the odor of sheep!”
Shepherds aren’t sheep, and it is to the benefit of no one to forget the difference. But a shepherd who doesn’t have the whiff of sheep about him probably needs to get better acquainted with the sheep—for their sake and his.
Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The views expressed here are his own.