Smelling Like Sheep

The following homily was delivered by Fr. Aristotle Dy, SJ during the Eucharistic celebration for the Lunar New Year of the Sheep on 17 February 2015.

It is now almost two years since Pope Francis became the “world’s parish priest” or Chief Shepherd. Time and again he has used the image of shepherd and sheep to describe the mission of the Christian.

At his very first general audience in March 2013, he said, “God stepped outside of Himself to come among us, He pitched His tent among us to bring the mercy of God that saves and gives hope. Even if we want to follow Him and stay with Him, we must not be content to remain in the enclosure of the ninety-nine sheep, we have to “step outside”, to search for the lost sheep together with Him, the one furthest away.”

When addressing priests, the Pope has often highlighted their role as shepherds: “The priest who seldom goes out of himself … misses out on the best of our people, on what can stir the depths of his priestly heart. … This is precisely the reason why some priests grow dissatisfied, lose heart and become in a sense collectors of antiquities or novelties — instead of being shepherds living with ‘the smell of the sheep.’ This is what I am asking you — be shepherds with the smell of sheep.” (Holy Thursday Mass, April 2013)

In November 2013, when the day’s Scripture reading was on the parable of the lost sheep, the Pope said that God “can’t stand losing one of His own…. He goes and searches for them. And how does he search? He searches until the end, like the shepherd who goes out into the darkness, searching, until he finds the sheep…. That’s how God searches. “I won’t lose this son, he’s mine! And I don’t want to lose him.” This is our Father: he always comes searching for us… when he has found the sheep and brought it back into the fold with the others, no one must say ‘you are lost’, but everyone should say ‘you are one of us’, because this returns dignity to the lost sheep.”

Speaking to priests in Manila during his visit last month, he chose the passage from John where Jesus asks Peter to “Tend my sheep.” He in fact began his homily with the question of Jesus to Peter, “Do you love me?”

Before he could continue with his homily, the assembled priests very quickly responded, “Yes!”  And the Pope laughed and thanked the congregation for their love before continuing. Earlier in the month, he had also been photographed in Rome with a sheep on his shoulders, evidence of his playfulness and sense of humor.

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For Chinese Christians ushering in the Year of the Sheep, these images of Jesus the Good Shepherd looking after all the sheep in his care is quite appropriate. Let me suggest three reasons why.

First, because the Shepherd looks after us, we need not be afraid. Jesus, the Son of God, knows his sheep intimately. He calls each sheep by name; the sheep recognize his voice and follow him.  The Good Shepherd, unlike thieves and robbers, cares for the sheep and is ready to give his life for them. If even just one sheep gets lost, the shepherd will not stop until that lost sheep is found.

The timeless message of Jesus is that he is with us, and we need not be afraid. At this time of the year when we are tempted to rely on all kinds of customs and superstitions to attract good luck or to ensure our well-being in the coming year, Jesus tells us that our best protection comes from him, the Good Shepherd. We are called to have faith, not fear.

Second, we are all invited to be shepherds. Confident in God’s protective love and mercy, we are invited to share this experience of God with others.

In the book of Ezekiel (34:1-16), the Lord directs the prophet to reprimand the shepherds or leaders of Israel for pasturing themselves rather than the sheep or the people of Israel.  Then as now, people in authority often use their positions to enrich themselves rather than truly serve the people. God sees this and admonishes the leaders, taking pity on the scattered sheep that have become “food for the wild beasts,” with no one to care for them.

The Lord God says, “I am coming, I will claim my sheep, I myself will look after and tend my sheep.”  This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus, and Jesus in turn asks his disciples to be shepherds after his own heart—taking care of the sheep entrusted to us.

In Chris Lowney’s Heroic Leadership, he says that most people do not see themselves as leaders, but in fact, anyone with influence over another person is a leader. And who isn’t influencing at least one other person? We are all leaders. We are all shepherds with sheep to look after.

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Third and finally, we are asked to smell like the sheep. This is a message that Pope Francis has emphasized. A shepherd cannot do his job by keeping distance from the sheep. One has to be ready to spend time with people, get one’s hands dirty, and experience reality rather than focus on ideas.

When Pope Francis spoke before a youth assembly in Manila last month, he was so moved by the experiences shared with him that he responded by speaking spontaneously rather than reading his prepared script. “Your reality is more important than the paper in front of me,” he said. He spoke from the heart and was able to connect with the crowd despite the limitations of language.

In the two years that he has been Pope, Francis has visited people living on the margins of society—refugees, asylum seekers, prisoners, the poor and the sick. He hugs and blesses people, giving them priority over the demands of protocol. This is a shepherd who wants to smell like his sheep.

We hope for the best as each new year begins. A year ago, we all wished that it would be 马到成功, that success would come with the horse. But it has been a difficult year for the country and the region. Planes crashed, typhoons raged and wrought major damage, forty-four members of the police force died in an encounter with terrorists. These, on top of the personal tragedies of families who deal with suicide and other mental health issues.

As another lunar new year dawns, we realize that good luck charms and other practices cannot prevent tragedies. Bad things happen all the time. Perhaps we are being invited to direct our attention away from seeking luck and protection only for ourselves, and towards reaching out to others like shepherds to sheep. If we are ready to smell like the sheep, we can create communities that care and that can weather what storms may come, together.

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