“…stay close to the marginalized and

strive to be shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

At his first Chrism Mass in Rome, Pope Francis called on the priests of the world to bring the healing power of God’s grace to everyone in need, to stay close to the marginalized and to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

A fellow Jesuit, who succeeded him as provincial, tells us that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was pre-eminently a pastor, whose “love and care for the disadvantaged and marginalized were instinctual.” This explains why he specifically chose the name Francis, il poverello, intending thereby to lead a Church in the spirit of Francis of Assisi – a Church that listens to the people, a Church that is collaborative rather than authoritarian, a Church that consistently and strikingly proclaims the Good News of joy, peace, love and selfless service. This, in practice, includes sharing the Gospel with those who are estranged, be they youth, the marginalized, the religiously indifferent or hostile, or the poor – materially or spiritually.

As is well known, John Powell is a scholarly priest, a prolific writer and an eloquent speaker. Every book of his is very informative, interesting and inspiring – I have figuratively devoured them all.

One of his books is entitled Happiness is an Inside Job. In a nutshell, his sole objective is to show his readers that no matter how wealthy we are, happiness can never be bought – money can never buy happiness. True happiness must always come from within.

For instance, he tells the story of a lady, who had yearned to be married to a man of wealth and status. Fortunately she did find him, and they were married. Thereafter she moved into his large and luxurious home in a beautiful suburb with the most picturesque surroundings. Her joy truly knew no bounds, for her long-cherished dream had been fulfilled.

Not much later she became seriously ill and had to be rushed to hospital on an emergency. There she was informed that the illness was terminal. As can be expected, she was devastated. Seething with fury, she stormed out her room, marched down the corridor, and made for the hospital chapel.

Once there, she screamed at God saying, “You’re a fraud, a real phony! You have been passing yourself as love for two thousand years. But every time anyone finds a little happiness, you cruelly pull the rug from under their feet. Well, I just want you to know that I’ve had it. I see right through you – you’re no more than a fraud.”

The pitiable woman had worked herself to such a frenzy that she literally collapsed to the floor with sheer exhaustion. Once there, she did what anyone would do in a state of utmost helplessness and frustration – she began to sob and convulsively too.

A few minutes later she opened her eyes and right before her was a message woven into the carpet – “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!” Slowly she got herself to repeat that earnest plea for mercy and help – “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner!” And each time she said it, she felt herself imbued with a new hope and a renewed spirit. To make a long story short, she made a made a most miraculous recovery and was able to resume her life with a new zest and in a new direction, realising two all-important truths – that money can never buy happiness, and that true happiness always comes from within.

Antonio Rosmini is a XIX century Italian priest/philosopher. And this is what he said about the sacred priesthood: “There is nothing static about a vocation to the priesthood, because God is continually calling us to a progressive way…He does so through the various circumstances of a priest’s life, and especially, through new occasions for sacrifice…If a priest is faithful, God will continue to send new invitations, which will open up wider and more luminous horizons, until the soul lives its consecration in a perpetual renewal of fervour and love.”

While in Southern California recently, I served in a parish and one of my pastoral duties was to celebrate the Eucharist in a Correctional Centre for young men between the ages of 14 and 18. On my very first visit, I was particularly impressed by a bright young man seated right before me. He was chosen to do the First Reading and he did it very well. In my homily I dwelt on the theme: Every saint has had a past; every sinner has a future. And in simple terms, I impressed upon the young men present that no matter what the past may have been, God had the best future in store for them if they worked with faith in God and with confidence in their God-given talents. The Holy Spirit was very much at work that morning and I could see that young man literally hang onto my lips, his mouth agape and his eyes aglow with wonder and hope.

At the end of Mass, he came up to me and expressed his desire to share his story. Reportedly at the age of 10, he saw his father shot dead on a street in New York. The assailant was just 12. In fear, the mother took her two sons and moved to the west coast. There, compelled by abject poverty, the mother took to drug trafficking and was incarcerated more than once. This young lad had no alternative but to fend for himself in a very harsh milieu. Sadly his only option was to serve as a drug courier and was himself in and out of correctional institutions. Violence was the order of the day and he honestly confessed that he had committed offences of which he was both unreservedly ashamed and truly contrite. His sole desire was to make a complete break with the past and to carve a new future with confidence in his God-given abilities and in the unfailing Providence of God. He truly believed that if every saint has had a past, every sinner has a future. That morning the prodigal son had returned to the welcoming arms of his heavenly Father.

All I did was to encourage him to forge ahead with faith and with hope. Fortuitously he was assigned a very sympathetic and supportive counsellor, who assured him of her guidance and assistance after his release, which was imminent. The most recent report from the counsellor informs me that he has moved into supervised accommodation and is making admirable progress. Soon he will commence his first job and aspires to move ahead – one step at a time, one day at a time. A priest is indeed a man for others, a shepherd living with the smell of the sheep – for their salvation and their sanctification.

I very clearly remember the pertinent advice of a senior priest: “The true priest is at the disposal of a divine purpose that is often concealed in the immediate moment and sometimes for a good while. He must make himself very open and accessible to being used in ways he cannot foresee. It is not good, in fact, to presume a clear awareness of God’s workings. The only sure knowledge he has is that Christ Jesus gave himself for every soul he will encounter as a priest for the rest of his life.” This is the principal reason why Pope Francis urged the priests of the world to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.”

A priest then must be alert and open to the unexpected possibilities while in contact with people wherever they are. The ways of God are mysterious, but always marvellous! And this can be a source of much spiritual happiness for a priest. Chance encounters with people are not so random and unplanned as they first appear.  They certainly were not for Pope Francis, Antonio Rosmini, John Powell and for me. A priest lives his small life within the active presence of an unfathomable Love that will always exceed his comprehension. In a word, the sacred priesthood is always dynamic, never static.