Shepherds Who Smell Like the Sheep

As news of the ongoing sex abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church breaks like wave after unforgiving wave on an already devastated shoreline, I have been haunted by the image of Christ, the Good Shepherd, one of the most ancient and prevalent images of Jesus from the Roman catacombs.

Good-Shepherd-Catacomb-of-Callixtus-mid-3rd-centuryThe image was Jesus’ own, of course—“I am the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep”; “I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:11-18)—or it was put into the mouth of Jesus by the author of John’s Gospel. Either way, it visualizes with startling intimacy the palpable care that Jesus’ friends and followers, ordinary and stumbling people all, felt in his presence.

“Who among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’” (Luke 15:4)

For me, the catacombs image is inseparable from another image of Jesus that seemed ubiquitous in my Catholic parochial school and which graces the walls of many children’s bedrooms: Christ surrounded by children, kids sitting in his lap, his arms open wide, his face alight with a smile, everything in his demeanor proclaiming with utter delight, “Let the children come to me! Behold, it is to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven!” (Matt 19:14)

Jesus_with_childrenChrist not only welcomes but he seeks out the most vulnerable. He carries them over his shoulders, leaves the 99 to seek after the 1 that is lost, rebukes those who would send the little ones away, or dare to bring them into harm’s way. It would be better for such a person “to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matt 18:6) In everything, Jesus is saying directly to the children–to the divine Child in each of us–“You are inviolably sacred in the eyes of God, and let no one tell or treat you otherwise.”

In the early years of his papacy, Pope Francis never tired of saying to bishops and priests, “I want shepherds who smell like the sheep.” In light of the unspeakable violence done to children by the putative shepherds of the church, the image, I think, can no longer hold. To “smell like the sheep” in the context of the Pennsylvania report—men with power grooming and raping children and young men with none—makes the stomach turn.

Not a few parents tonight are feeling betrayed, naïve, even gullible—how could I have entrusted my child to the Church? Shepherds who smell like the sheep? What was once an image of trust and safe harbor has become, against all our better angels, obscene. And yet that sense of collective nausea belies the witness of so many good priests and religious, men and women, who truly embody in their vocations the person of Christ the Good Shepherd. Many of them have been, and many remain, my teachers, my mentors, my dearest friends. And I know they are hurting tonight as much as I am.

My faith is not in the church, I reassure myself. My faith is in God, who walks beside us even “in the valley of the shadow of death.” (Ps 23) My faith is in Jesus, who shows me palpably this fiercely tender face of God. That “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands,” is trustworthy: God is love and “love is of God, and that everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.” (1 Jn 4:8)

A close friend has described the present crisis as like a “coal seam fire” burning deep beneath the city. Wherever the fire is hottest and nearest to the surface, buildings are falling, burning to the ground: Australia, Chile, Ireland, the United States. Yet the seam travels deep, far, and wide. Where will the fire surface next? Africa, Asia, Mexico, Haiti? If what we habitually call “the church” can ever heal and rebuild, it will—it must—look vastly different than the institution as we have known it. It will not be a “church” where power is exercised from above. It will be a “community” where the least are embraced, nurtured, and lifted up from below.

And this, too, makes the stomach turn: bishops who would divert our attention from the systemic root of this coal seam fire—clericalism, unchecked power and sexual manipulation, utter hypocrisy, the bishops’ own complicity in the cover up—and blame it on homosexuality in the seminaries or the “gay friendly” disposition of Pope Francis, or the “deviant wing” of the Society of Jesus (read: James Martin), or LGBT-friendly campuses (read: Jesuit universities), or [fill in the blank] with your favorite ecclesial scapegoat.

Others, gratefully, have said this with much more eloquence and wisdom of experience than I ever could, but the poisonous narrative that would link homosexuality, “gay culture,” and the secular “sexual revolution” with the evil of pedophilia, sexual assault, and child rape needs to end. Period. Full stop. Any priest or bishop who perpetuates that expedient script from the pulpit is no shepherd but further condemns our LGBT brothers and sisters, our children and friends, our gay priests and religious, our very selves, to shame and a life ever deeper in the shadows by association with these horrific crimes. Catholics have every right to stand up in their pews and tell any such pastors to stop it.

My faith is not in the church, I repeat, and yet I recognize that my faith is, was, shall ever be, in the church. Like the adult children of an abusive father, I am implicated. To whom else shall I go? I have come to know the God of love through Jesus, not a disembodied angel but a flesh and blood human being, and yes, through the church, his sacramental body, my own family.

And suddenly I see Jesus turning over the tables in the temple. “You have turned the church into a den of thieves. How many more stolen childhoods? How many more false accusations? You cannot see the beam in your own eye. For the love of God, stop it.”

The good shepherd gathers the flock and leads them to green fields and life-giving waters. But when the fields have all burnt and water is nowhere to be found, perhaps the most apt image for our hope is not that of the lone shepherd but the laborers hidden in the field, who sow their seeds even in drought and on fire-ravaged soil, trusting that rain will come.

For there is also water, they dare to believe, hidden just beneath the surfaces.

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