When I donned the cassock for the first time as a novice, it took me a while to get used to it. Going up and down stairs was a challenge at first, but, after some practice, I mastered the technique. It also took me a while to get used to being in a formal uniform almost all the time. The cassock is not supposed to be worn for outdoor physical activity, but on a few occasions, I have had to make exceptions, including the night of Pope Francis’s election when I had to run full-speed in cassock to get a spot in St. Peter’s Square for his first appearance as pope. Not long ago, I found myself making another exception. Our seminary is located on the outskirts of Rome, where fields and open spaces are much more common than in the historic center. By Italian law, sheep are allowed to graze on fields that are not being used for anything else. Since our seminary has some unused fields, the local flock helps itself to our grass at least twice a week.
After lunch one day, I was walking down by the fields with a confrere when we suddenly heard bleating. We looked down and saw a lamb that was separated from the rest of the flock by at least 300 yards. The shepherd was nowhere to be seen, so, being the kind-hearted seminarians that we are, we decided to guide the lost lamb back to the flock.
We did not want to pick up the lamb for fear of dirtying our cassocks (this turned out to be a very prudent decision), so we both positioned ourselves behind to guide him in the direction of the other sheep. The idea was to slowly move towards the flock, trying to force the lamb to go towards it.
It turned out to be easier said than done. Every couple of yards, the lost lamb would do an about-face and run directly away from flock, forcing us to re-position ourselves and try again. This went on for quite some time until we finally got the lamb close enough to a ewe not terribly far from the edge of the flock.
Reflecting a little later on this event, it occurred to me that perhaps God was trying to teach me a lesson for my future ministry as a shepherd of souls. My experience with the lost lamb was similar to what Christ goes through with his own lost sheep. When we stray, he positions himself to gently guide us back, but we stubbornly run in the opposite direction. He always respects our freedom; he never grabs us nor forces us to go the right way. But he doesn’t give up. He stands by us, reminding us with his presence and through our consciences that we are straying. If we return, his joy is more than we can imagine.
As I was thinking this over in the little chapel in my hall, I realized a very interesting coincidence. The Gospel passage during the community mass that morning had been the parable of the Good Shepherd!
I took that as a sign that my experience of shepherding was not an accident…and that I shouldn’t feel bad for doing it in cassock!