Pope FRANCIS, With the Smell of the Sheep: The Pope Speaks to Priests, Bishops, and Other Shepherds, ed. Giuseppe Merola. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2017: pp.xiii, 297. ISBN 9781626982246 (softcover) $18.00. Reviewed by Matthew R. PETRUSEK, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA  90045.


Editor Giuseppe Merola has provided a great service to Catholics and non-Catholics alike in this distinctive collection of Pope Francis’s homilies, formal addresses, and letters to ordained members of the Church. The book is divided up into six sections—chrism masses, meetings with priests, priestly formation, meeting with bishops, Christmas greetings to the Roman Curia, and other occasions—and includes a forward by Robert Barron, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, and the well-known founder of the Word on Fire media ministry.  

The sheep/shepherd metaphor refers to Francis’s now famous insistence that priests and bishops should take on the “smell of the sheep”, implying that the heart of their ministry, including those with heavy administrative duties, is to be physically among the faithful in the minutia of their lives. However, the metaphor can also be misleading for interpreting the spirit of many of the texts. Francis certainly affirms that the ordination of the clergy as clergy fundamentally distinguishes them from laypeople. However, one of the golden threads uniting the diverse topics is Francis’s emphasis on the priesthood being a gift, not a privilege. Indeed, while priests enjoy unique sacramental capacities, Francis frequently reminds his listeners that, in every other respect, they are among the sheep as sheep—which is to say, sinners in radical need of God’s mercy. While never lacking a good-natured and, even, fun-loving kindness, Francis does not pull punches in his criticisms of priest, bishops, and the curia, often portraying them as the most pungent members of the flock.

Indeed, Francis makes it a priority to banish even the faintest scent of clericalism and careerism in the Church, particularly when it takes the form of moral superiority, aloofness, or backbiting ambition. He consistently calls all religious back to the simplicity of their vocation as evangelists and missionaries, stating repeatedly that the condition for doing such work authentically and effectively is a commitment to renouncing all personal goals. He insists on moral rigorism when it comes to performing one’s priestly duties—frequently praising, for example, priests who sleep next to their phones so no one dies without the sacraments—yet maintains that such hard labor will always yield fruits of joy and serenity when done in and through the gaze of Christ.

Lay readers, particularly those who have never worked inside the Church, will likely find some of Francis’s portrayal of priests, bishops, and the curia as disenchanting (a warning against gossiping, for example, comes up time and time again). But the disenchantment should not lead to any kind of disheartening, for, as Francis continually reminds his audiences, there are, and always have been, many, many good priests working mostly unnoticed, like, to employ one of his analogies, the forest growing silently around a few crashing trees.

Perhaps the greatest value for ordained and lay readers alike is that one comes away with the view that the Francis of popular imagination is the Francis of concrete reality: humble, compassionate, keenly aware of his own sin, merciful, wise, and authentically seeking to build a poor Church for the poor. Above all, Francis emerges as a profoundly pastoral pope whose focus of concern is on individuals and their problems now—not on abstract debates about theology or morality. To be sure, this can be a cause for frustration at times. For example, Francis boldly claims at one point that priests should be “firm” with the flock regarding their sins, but then, in the next breath, commands them not to be “rigid.” What, the theologian, might ask, is the difference? Francis does not answer, at least not systematically, and this kind of ambiguity can be problematic, as we have seen, for example, in the debates on how to interpret Amoris laetitia

But where there is ambiguity in words, there is consistently clarity in action. And in this respect, perhaps Aristotle can provide a helpful hermeneutic for understanding and interpreting the Francis we see in this text. The best answer to the theoretical question “What is virtue?”, the philosopher maintained, comes in the form of witnessing and imitating those who are already virtuous. Applied to Francis, we might say: Be Christ-like and let thought follow.