Just the other day I met a woman who was telling me about her life living in a very different environment than my own. Growing up in Los Angeles, there are areas I have no experience in, such as growing up in a more rural area. This woman invited me to come to visit her, as she lives in the country. She has sheep, and will be having baby lambs coming to her in June.
It called to mind the wonderful image that Pope Francis included in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium: “a shepherd must smell like his sheep.” As a city girl, I have absolutely no idea what a sheep might smell like, so that imagery and the whole Shepherd analogy has been a bit lost on me. In order to know what a sheep actually smells like, I would have to take advantage of this woman’s kind offer and visit her home to live the experience.
How often do we take an image like the sheep and take it for granted we know what they smell like, sound like, or how they live? We can imagine it, but we will never truly know. We have to go out to the field and have the experience firsthand.
I imagine that to be the entire point for Pope Francis: going out to the people and getting to know them before we try to fulfill their needs. And this is not just something for ministers of the church to be aware of, but for each of us no matter what the situation. How often in life do we make the assumption of what people might need, and try to fulfill them, before we have even listened to them or understood their situation? This happens in family, in relationships, friendships, and the work place. Rather than taking the time to listen, we jump in with the solution.
The challenge for us as Christians is to follow Christ’s example and open our ears and eyes to those around us and truly try to understand their life experience before we make a judgment or decide what their needs are. This is not an easy thing to do: we are almost conditioned to make snap judgments, especially of people and our expectation of them.
Just last week I had the wonderful opportunity to experience it. Members of our Pastoral Center Staff went out to Merced and Bakersfield and, to meet with parish staff members. We also hosted a day here in Fresno for staff members to come and see our facility. It was a chance to get to know them and ask their needs, and to share a bit about ourselves. I met so many people and heard so many wonderful stories about what is happening in our parishes that it gave me a new energy! To be able to have the time to travel out and visit with people was a blessing that I hope we can repeat!
We must all make an effort to move out of our comfort zone to get to know God’s people. In order to fulfill our Holy Father’s call to discipleship, we must truly become missionary disciples.
Read more about this in the Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, found on the Vatican website, www.vatican.va