With the Smell of the Sheep:
The Pope Speaks to Priests, Bishops and Other Shepherds
Giuseppe Merola, ed.,
Considering that the Roman Catholic Pope is commonly called “the Holy Father,” it might come as a surprise that Pope Francis has been the target of pretty unholy criticism from certain church leaders, lay and ordained. First Things, the journal founded by the late Richard John Neuhaus—once progressive Lutheran pastor turned conservative Catholic priest—regularly publishes articles sharply opposed to Francis’ speeches, writings, theology and activities.
Criticism of Pope Francis
Criticism of the pope is surely warranted on certain issues. For example, regardless of where they sit on the theological or political spectrum, many have criticized Pope Francis for tardily and insufficiently responding to the continuing scandal of sexual abuse by priests. Until recently, he did little about serious accusations against a Chilean bishop’s alleged cover-up of abuse in his diocese. Finally, in April he publicly apologized, an action that the Washington Post called “something impossible for Trump” (April 15, 2018). As a further sign that the church is now trying to clean its Chilean house, all 34 bishops resigned in May. Francis has accepted three resignations and said he might accept more. Giving clear reasons for that would help his dented reputation.
Some of the pope’s inaction in Chile results from his regular practice of following national church leaders’ decisions about official affairs. Thus when Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, reporting on abuses in the Indian residential school system, recommended that he come to Canada to apologize, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decided not to invite him. Francis honoured that decision, even Parliament recently passed a near-unanimous resolution to do so.
Still a popular pope
Regardless, many remain attracted to the pontiff’s common touch and kindly public demeanour. His simple wardrobe of white robes and black brogues instead of regal garb and traditional red slippers; his choice to live in Vatican apartments instead of the papal residence; his regular critiques of consumer culture all appeal to believers and unbelievers in our egalitarian age. That unaffected simplicity, long a trademark of Francis’ life, helps overshadow some of his faux pas and neutralizes some opposition.
Perhaps some popularity is the harvest of persistent efforts by maverick Catholic publisher Maryknoll Books to flog eleven books of Francis’ since 2013: encyclicals, homilies, private addresses to Catholic leaders and public speeches made around the world. By contrast, Orbis lists only three titles by Francis’ predecessors John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
A glance at the book
That backstory offers a needed perspective for reading Pope Francis’ With the Smell of the Sheep: The Pope Speaks to Priests, Bishops and Other Shepherds. Editor Giuseppe Merola chose 53 mostly short speeches, with considerable care, though in an order whose logic I can’t discern. The pieces run under these consecutive categories: “Chrism Masses,” “Meetings with Priests” (the longest section), “Priestly Formation,” “Meeting with Bishops,” “Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia” and “Other Occasions.”
Repetition is unavoidable in occasional pieces written in the few years since 2013 by one author. That the pope repeats anecdotes in several places shows consistency, not laziness. What preacher hasn’t rewarmed the same sermon time and again? Thus, whether addressing parish priests or bishops, in several addresses Francis plays variations on necessary characteristics and virtues of the pastoral vocation. Whether prelates or pastors in small multi-parish charges are the audience, Francis emphasizes such virtues as humility, vulnerability, transparency, benevolence, fraternity, patience, presence, perseverance in trials. He frequently apologizes for the sexual abuse scandal, though remedial actions haven’t always been adequate or effective.
The pope often quotes both Jesus’ apothegms and stories and St. Paul’s direct instructions as sources for these ancient norms for all Christian pastors. His exhortations freshen pastoral vocation and life with new breezes of candour, grace and compassion, all mined from his decades as a parish pastor, archbishop and cardinal. Wherever Francis goes, he defines himself as a shepherd of the sheep, whether they be the poor in Argentine barrios or the powerful in Rome’s Curia. Francis knows his flock, even if not all the sheep are enamoured of their shepherd.
Enlightening and provocative
He embellishes talks with practical, sometimes humourous anecdotes from his own or colleagues‘ experiences. One memorable story lands a double whammy on rival faith groups, contrasting Protestant perseverance in an Argentine village and Catholic pastoral neglect. Francis cites a young missionary priest who visited a town that hadn’t seen a priest in two years. A woman “began insulting him . . . ‘You abandoned us . . . and I, who need the Word of God had to go to Protestant worship and I became a Protestant.’” To that rebuke, the priest simply replied, “Forgive us, forgive us. We abandoned the flock.” With that, the woman’s tone changed and she offered him coffee. When he readied to leave, she said, “Stop, Father. Come,” opening her closet “and there was the image of Our Lady. ‘You must know, I hid her because of the pastor, but she’s in the home’” (60). Still, she remained a Protestant.
Besides the honesty of these talks, Francis also reveals a bold, almost irreverent comic side. When speaking of “Mother Church” and priests who forsake the call to evangelize, he speaks in odd, yet telling mixed metaphors, “If the Church is not mother, it’s sad to say she becomes a spinster…! She bears no fruit…. She’s a little aged…. We must rejuvenate her, but not by taking her to the plastic surgeon, no!” (193, 194).
In all, this fascinating glimpse at the mind and heart of Pope Francis shows him at his popular pastoral best. Judicious editing could have given these speeches better flow. Also, many unfamiliar with Roman jargon might stumble. (So keep your Google dictionary a click away.) Sometimes these official translations from Italian and Spanish are lumpy and awkward. The non-English “formators” (185), transcribed from Italian “formatori,” finds a far better translation in “trainers.”
Regardless, this book provided two weeks of comfortable early morning reflection. To pop my Protestant bubble I’ll be looking for more of Pope Francis’ writings as well as those of his critics.
James Dekker lives in St. Catharines, Ontario reviewing books, despairing of ever catching up with weeks of neglecting overgrown and weed-infested gardens. Bicycling is better aerobic exercise anyway.