If Church Leaders Don’t ‘Smell Like Their Flock,’ How Can They Be Credible?

Fr. Bryan Massingale, a theologian at Fordham University, has challenged Catholic leaders to smell more like their flock on LGBT issues, if they want to be credible witnesses to the Gospel.

Massingale - What does it mean-Massingale opened his recent U.S. Catholic essay entitled “The church needs to work more closely with its LGBT members” by writing about his travels in Kenya, where, at one point, he helped with baptisms in a remote region. Entering the church, he said it “reeked with the odor of goat dung” and there were swarms of flies. This atmosphere made sense because the women gathered to celebrate were all shepherds and smelled of their flocks.

Massingale said the women “taught me what it means to smell like the flock,” his favorite image from Pope Francis about ministry in the church. He continued:

“[Pope Francis] summons us to go to those who live on the edges of what religious folks find acceptable. And then he tells us that we cannot be effective bearers of the good news unless we are willing to ‘smell like the sheep,’ that is, unless we are willing to be so intimately a part of people’s lives and endure the hardships they experience. We must be willing to put up with the flies present in their lives and smell like the sheep.”

Massingale applied this lesson to LGBT people in the church, and the need for better pastoral care with them. He wrote:

“The Catholic Church’s treatment of LGBT persons has become, especially for Millennial Catholics, a litmus test for its ethical credibility and moral authority. Church documents speak about LGBT persons. But no official statement or outreach begins by speaking with them and engaging their experiences or those of their families.

“Pope Francis’ challenge to smell like sheep then hovers over the church: How can we effectively proclaim good news, much less be seen as credible, if church leadership refuses to smell like the flock? Can we become so familiar with the LGBT community’s lives, stories, struggles, and triumphs, even endure their flies, namely, the hostility of those who would ostracize them either out of ignorance or hatred?”

Massingale specifically identified the firing of LGBT church workers, citing New Ways Ministry’s list that reports on more than 60 public incidents in the last decade. These firings in particular have undercut church leaders’ credibility and harmed whole communities.

Massingale himself has come to “smell like the flock” as an outspoken advocate for LGBT inclusion. In April, he told the LGBT and ally participants at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Refuse to be silenced. Continue to speak our truth.”  At another conference this past summer, he has said we are engaged in a “struggle for the soul of U.S. Catholicism” given the bishops’ partisan campaigns.  In another essay, he wrote that the church cannot abandon transgender Catholics. In 2013, he challenged the Pax Christi USA national conference attendees to increase the organization’s defense of LGBT rights, as both a human rights concern and a necessary part of attracting younger Catholics. Massingale also joined other Catholic theologians and officials in condemning proposed anti-gay legislation in Uganda.

Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, September 17, 2017

1 reply
  1. Jeanne Kenny
    Jeanne Kenny says:

    Thank you for your very pastoral message, Bryan. Inclusivity and justice will in DEED prevail. You do “smell like the sheep” you serve and encourage us to go and do the same. Amen.


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