There is nothing unusual about a Catholic leader urging priests to draw closer to their flocks, to focus on day-to-day issues that bridge the gap between pulpit and pew.
Still, it caught Vatican insiders off guard when Pope Francis, a week after his installation Mass, used a somewhat pungent image when discussing this problem.
“This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad — sad priests — in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the smell of the sheep,” he said. “This I ask you: be shepherds, with the ‘odor of the sheep,’ make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men.”
At this point, “it’s safe to say everyone in the Catholic world knows that line, if they’re paying attention at all,” said Father Robert Barron, president of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. He is also known for his work as founder of the Word on Fire media ministry and as an NBC News analyst.
It’s easy, when talking about this pope’s back-to-basics style, to stress his life in Argentina, growing up in the home of immigrants from northern Italy. But when considering his preaching, said Barron, the key is to remember his experience at the parish and diocesan levels. While Pope Benedict XVI speaks with the precision of an academic comfortable in European classrooms, Pope Francis has spent much of his life preaching in slums.
“When you look at him in the pulpit you just have to say, ‘This is a preacher in a parish.’ He’s going up there with notes, not a formal five-page text” the Vatican press officers distributed in advance, said Barron, in a telephone interview. “Every now and then you catch him looking up with a kind of twinkle in his eyes and you can tell he’s enjoying what he’s doing, what he’s saying.”
Recently, the conservative journal First Things collected a few “vivid images” drawn from early sermons and remarks by the Jesuit pope. For example, the pope has warned Catholics not to focus on temporary things and, thus, become “teen-agers for life.” On another occasion, he said some Catholics complain so often they could become “Mr. or Mrs. Whiner” or end up with faces resembling “pickled peppers.”
Other sound bites in this list included:
* On March 14, Francis used a bit of policy wonk lingo: “We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the church, the bride of the Lord.”
* It’s crucial for Catholics to live their faith, not just talk about it privately, the pope said in mid-April: “When we do this the church becomes a mother church that bears children. … But when we don’t do it, the church becomes not a mother but a babysitter church, which takes care of the child to put him to sleep.”
* While some insist on talking about faith in vague terms, Francis reminded an April 18 audience: “When we talk to God we speak with persons who are concrete and tangible, not some misty, diffused god-like ‘god-spray,’ that’s a little bit everywhere but who knows what it is.”
* Stressing the importance of Easter, he noted: “Efforts have often been made to blur faith in the Resurrection of Jesus and doubts have crept in, even among believers. It is a little like that ‘rosewater’ faith, as we say; it is not a strong faith. And this is due to superficiality and sometimes to indifference, busy as we are with a thousand things considered more important than faith, or because we have a view of life that is solely horizontal.”
What runs through these words is the new pope’s desire to awaken in his listeners a “religious sense,” a “religious sensibility” that insists that there is more to life in the real world than mere materialism, said Barron.
Pope Francis knows that “if you want people to act, you have to touch them at the level of the real, the earthy and the practical,” he said. “As a pastor, he has used this language before. Now he is using these kinds of images again — from the throne of St. Peter.”