Should Bloggers Smell like the Sheep, too?

Pope Francis is famous for saying that priests (and presumably other church leaders and ministers) should “be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” This statement is often repeated and resonates like a mantra. And rightly so—it reflects a powerful vision of accompaniment, solidarity and servant leadership.

The statement has been greeted with proverbial cheers by the masses who know all too well the problems that can arise when church leaders are too distant from the lives of the people they are attempting to shepherd.

Leaders—especially those who aspire to imitate Christ—lead best when they are close to the people. This closeness can be expressed in many ways, from sharing in the same lifestyle, sharing in the sufferings and just being geographically close.

I’m privileged to work for an organization that lives this out very well. The missionary priests, brothers and lay co-workers of Glenmary Home Missioners walk close to the people they serve in the small towns and hollers of the rural US South.

However, Pope Francis has made another, very similar that has failed to grab the imagination of the people the way the first one has. It was initially shared by Catholic media but has all but disappeared with the passing news cycle.

Pope Francis has also said theologians should also “smell of the people and of the road.”

The second clause is great emphasis: Not only are theologians charged with having the smell of the people, but Francis also thinks they need to be on the road. In other words, they need to be out there in the muck and mire of the world, rather than some secluded office. He doesn’t use the word “sheep” here presumably because academics are not necessarily pastors, but to the extent that we all minister to each other, we are both sheep and shepherd at times.

Admittedly, Francis shared this statement in quite a different format than the one about clerics. The first statement was said in one of his first Masses as pope when he had the world’s attention. The second was in a letter to faculty at a university in Argentina two years into his pontificate. Still, I tend to believe that the statement could have taken on the urgency of the first if only we had ears to hear. Other offhanded comments by Francis have captured the world’s attention, after all.

Perhaps the statement about theologians has been forgotten because it points the finger at a great many of us. I take his comment to apply not just to professional academics but also to us amateur and professional bloggers and commentators on the faith—in other words, just about all of us. It’s easy to point the fingers at those church leaders—it’s harder to point the finger at ourselves.

Everyone has different gifts. Some are thinkers. Some are healers. Some are pastors. Some are activists. Some are janitors, dish washers, nurses and mentors. However, there is something amiss when a life is completely un-integrated—for example, when someone is predominately a thinker and little else. I have known people who are profound theologians who flounder—if they bother to make any attempt at all—at integrating any of that theological insight into their lifestyle and actions. One of my first mentors was one such person. Probably the greatest lesson he taught me was the one he didn’t intend. I have worked hard in the years since to see his example as a cautionary tale. There are reasons, of course, why people become so fragmented, and my intention is to learn from them without judging too harshly.

People love the Church Mothers and Fathers. These were great writers and holy people from the very early Church. Even 2,000 years later, their writings are still powerful and capture our attention. One thing that just about all of these people had in common was they seemed to display a very integrated faith life. They were profound theologians. They also lived holy lives. Some wrote—literally—on the road to martyrdom. They lived lives of sacrifice, dedication, some in solidarity with the poor and doing what we would refer to today as “activism.” Their lived experience was not simply in addition to their theology—rather, it seems their theology was all the stronger because of this lived experience.

A biblical scholar once noticeably scoffed at me when I suggested that Fr. Daniel Berrigan’s of the Book of Job was one of the most helpful in my scholarly studies of the book. As an activist priest who has been very close to suffering all this life, including spending years in prison for the cause of the gospel, perhaps Fr. Berrigan had a better chance of truly understanding the message of Job than an academic sitting alone in a comfortable library. Rigorous academic study is important (as I’m sure Berrigan would have agreed), but it is worth asking whether we can truly understand the biblical texts outside of a lived experience of suffering, oppression and the other contexts out of which the biblical authors wrote? In other words, can you truly understand Job if you don’t, well, smell like Job?

I’ve had suffering in my life, but I am quite comfortable today writing in my warm home on a mild Ohio day. It’s hard to willingly leave my comfort zone to be close to the ones I am ministering to, whether that involves suffering, oppression or simply change and discomfort. But that is why Francis’ words are a much needed challenge to me and perhaps also to a great many of us. They help me examine the ways I have—and more importantly, have not—theologized from a position of closeness to the sheep while being out there on the road.

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