The ‘smell of his sheep’– the earthy language and practical wisdom of Pope Francis


What a wonderful, vivid image! The Pope could have said that priests should mingle with their people, should learn all about the lives and loves, the cares and concerns, of the people in their parishes. But “the smell of their sheep” conveys the same idea much more powerfully.

Take another example of the Pope’s approach: his decision not to distribute Communion when he celebrates Mass in public. Many Catholic prelates have worried about the confusion that might be created if they administered the Eucharist to a Catholic whose public actions have caused scandal. Thousands of words have been written about whether Catholic politicians who support legal abortion should be denied Communion. Pope Francis has not entered directly into that debate, but he has found a practical way to avoid furthering scandal. No renegade Catholic will be able to exploit a “photo op” with this Pontiff.

When I began reading about our new Pope, before working on my own book about his life and the prospects for his pontificate, I quickly recognized that this was a man who deals in concrete facts rather than abstractions, who prefers to deal with people rather than ideas. He has not written books. He has avoided interviews. He has not hatched ambitious plans. He has not founded think-tanks. He has not made world tours, giving speeches in different cities. He has not called press conferences to issue major statements on social affairs. In short he has not done the things that ordinarily bring a cleric to public prominence. Yet somehow he has been chosen to occupy the world’s most prominent post.

How did that happen? How did the cardinal-electors settle on this simple, unassuming prelate as the successor to St. Peter? I suspect they recognized Cardinal Bergoglio as an unusually gifted pastor. I think they noticed—although few cardinals would have expressed it in these terms—that he had the “smell of his sheep.””Follow a fat Pope with a thin Pope,” runs the old Roman adage. The Pontiff’s physical girth is not important, of course, but the mixture of personal characteristics is. So now, after two Pontiffs with extraordinary scholarly credentials, we have a Pope who has no pretensions to intellectual status. After two Pontiffs who were active participants in the Second Vatican Council, anxious to help us understand the Council’s teachings, we have a Pontiff who was ordained to the priesthood after the Council, and has spent his entire ministry putting those teachings into practice. After two great theorists we have a practical tactician. As I wrote in A Call to Serve:

Pope Francis no longer needs to explain the teachings of the Council. That work has been admirably done by his two predecessors, who have left a body of teaching that will take many years to digest. The challenge now is to put the teaching into practice. Vatican II proclaimed the “age of the laity,” and reminded the faithful that all Catholics share equally in the responsibility to proclaim the faith. It falls to Pope Francis to rally the faithful in that great effort. One might almost say that John Paul II and Benedict XVI wrote the textbook on Vatican II, and Francis is producing the “how-to” manual.

In saying that these three Pontiffs have different talents, I do not mean to suggest that one is better than the others. Each Pope has different strengths; each responds to the challenges of a particular time. The needs of the Church today are not the same as they were in 1978 or 2005. The Holy Spirit chooses the man for the hour.

Some Catholics, I realize, are uncomfortable with a Pope who speaks in such plain, unsophisticated language. But Jesus filled the Gospels with images of farmers and fishermen, shepherds and vine-dressers. The Lord spoke to ordinary people in their ordinary language. There are always some people who fear that the Pope might “lower himself” to speak with people below his station, just as the Pharisees were troubled that Jesus dined with publicans.

The public style of Pope Francis is something new to the Catholic world, and for now its novelty captures attention. Whether it will be equally effective as the novelty wears off, remains to be seen. For now, let’s enjoy a refreshing new approach.