Pope Francis has a way of putting things.
Back in 2013, he called on his priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.” He said, “A church that limits itself to just carrying out administrative duties, caring for its tiny flock, is a church that in the long run will get sick. The pastor who isolates himself is not a true pastor of sheep, but a ‘hairdresser’ for sheep who spends his time putting curlers on them instead of going to look for others.”
Let us have no doubt that Pope Francis is speaking to any in roles of parish and diocesan leadership in his exhortation to know and live closely with our people. The more we can forge relationships of trust and appreciation with our parishioners, the better we can understand their particular realities and needs. . . and pastorally serve them, individually and collectively.
Lest anyone wonder what pastoral care has to do with evangelization, I would suggest that in an increasingly postmodern world where bonds to parish, Church, and faith itself, are often perilously tenuous, pastoral care has a more evangelizing quality to it than we might ever imagine. Evangelization can often be very much an inside job.
Some parishes are so large that it can be impossible for leaders to know all their sheep intimately. Indeed, how many people can any of us know to a meaningful degree and relate to closely? But this does not absent us of the responsibility Pope Francis is charging us with to know the smell of our sheep. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Make subtle adjustments in your leadership style to get closer to your people and to foster a posture of availability to them. Get away from the desk. Be interested and engaged. Personal affect can make a great difference! Take time to listen well.
2. Pray for the grace of an expanding heart that truly embraces others. And get rest, as this can be energy-demanding ministry, especially for introverts.
3. Develop systems that foster more people in roles of leadership. In other words, pastoral care should be broadened out through gifted and trained people rather than “bottle-necked” exclusively through you.
I recall the structure I inherited and continued as a parish DRE. Each grade level had several catechists, anywhere from six to eleven. Each grade level also had a coordinator, a master catechist who held a degree of primary responsibility for the catechists in that grade.
While I certainly tried to relate well to the catechists and parents, I made it my focus to care for and support these grade level coordinators, first and foremost. The idea was that they would, then in turn, provide a degree of intimate care and guidance to their catechists. And finally, we tried to create a culture where our catechists understood and embraced their pastoral relationship to parents of their students.
This subsidiarity model worked well as it encouraged many to take up their baptismal identity to pastorally care for others and draw them deeper into the love of Jesus. I guess it could be said that we were all responsible for carrying the smell of our sheep on us.