There have been many references to Pope Francis’ repeated call to bishops – indeed to all involved in ministry – to “know the smell of the sheep”. It’s a challenging but necessary call to get to know people and not just from a distance. It involves being with them in the ups and downs of life.
Patrick Kavanagh in a poem called “Father Mat”, describes the local priest as he was encountered by his flock “He was part of the place/Natural as a round stone in a grass field;/He could walk through a cattle fair/And the people would only notice his odd spirit there”. In the same poem he speaks of people’s attitude towards going to Fr Mat to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Saturday Confessions): “The knife of penance fell so like a blade/Of grass that no one was afraid.” I think Pope Francis would be happy to share a parish with Father Mat. Chances are we all would!
Kavanagh remembers this priest and puts him before us in verse not because he was a fireball in the pulpit or because he built churches, schools and halls but because he moved among his people. He knew them. He most likely never said it in as many words but it seems clear, he loved them. He saw before him, behind and around him, people in need of love and that bit of compassion that never ever goes astray. He embodied mercy – Divine Mercy.
On Divine Mercy Sunday there’s a call going out to us all to be kindly in our dealing with others, to avoid being judgmental or condemning. We are asked to hear again and again Jesus’ first words in nearly all his post-resurrection appearances: “Peace be with you”. Anything in us, about us or from us that is not encouraging “peace” is most likely not rooted in faith or a clear and thought out understanding of the Gospel message.
We are born to live. We are baptized to belong. We are here to make a difference. What “locked room” can we walk into today or in the coming days? Is it an ongoing row? Is it a strained relationship in the home? Is it a reluctance to acknowledge our own sinfulness and need for repentance? Is it doubt? What locked door stands between us and peace right now? We need to be honest enough with ourselves and others to recognise and name this door and we need faith, hope and every ounce of love that is within us to find the key, unlock and set free what is trapped within.
Recently Pope Francis spoke to the bishops of Ireland. He might or might not have mentioned the smell of the sheep to them but either way they know where he stands on that. He spoke to them about the “apostolate of the ear” – the need to listen to people and respond to what is heard. There’s a lot in that. Kavangh’s Father Mat seemed to have mastered it and that’s something to be thankful for – people who listen to us when we need to speak. Chances are though, we need that same “apostolate of the ear” when it comes to ourselves so that we can truly hear what we need to hear from our own hearts so that we can be set free, like Lazarus of the Gospel, like Thomas who had his doubts, like the disciples who had locked themselves away.
Only then can we truly appreciate the “Mercy” of the Shepherd. Only then are we in a position to shepherd (care for, truly love and mercy) those around us, depending on us for example and love. Only then can we truly grasp the depth and gift of mercy.