In one of his typically funny quotes, Pope Francis when asked about riding around in the open air car rather than behind the bulletproof glass said that he knows it is a little crazy not being protected, but that he thought a bishop behind bulletproof glass is even crazier. Now, I don't think anyone will ever fault him if he is convinced on occasion that he actually does need to be better protected, but I think Pope Francis is trying to teach bishops and priests something by his example. Repeatedly, he has said that bishops and priests need to be close to their people. The Pope wants us to be close to the people.
In the last ten years especially, many bishops and priests have placed themselves behind the figurative bulletproof glass. Fearful of being falsely accused or sued, many have succumbed to living life distantly from the people. False accusations, however, are not the only risk that comes from being close to the people. Living among the people brings the risk of making mistakes, having our weaknesses on display, saying the wrong thing, being misunderstood, being accused of favoritism, and in our Lord's instance, being called a drunkard and a glutton! In some ways, living behind the bulletproof glass keeps bishops and priests safe, but is this what Jesus wants from us?
When we live behind the bulletproof glass, we are kept safe from the assassin's bullet, but we inflict a far slower and more painful death on the faithful. The people are left without a shepherd. They have a remote overseer who may be able to fix the fence after the wolf has killed a sheep, but who is not going to be present to fight off the wolf when he appears. The people are longing for a father, a shepherd, a friend. They want to know the man who preaches to them, who absolves them, and who feeds them with the Eucharist. They want to know the nearness of the shepherd. Also, when the shepherd lives close to the sheep, they see that he too is a man who encounters the hardships of life and understands what it is like to be on this path. They come to know the shepherd as a man who is like them and who is with them.
This closeness, however, is not only about how it benefits the sheep. Being close to the people, the priest sees what their life is like. He knows their hungers, their desires, their struggles, their fears, their burdens, and their temptations. Being close to them makes him a better preacher and a better confessor. Being close to them makes him a better man and a better disciple. This closeness helps the priest mature in his own humanity. In fact, the only way for a priest to grow is to be in the midst of the flock.
Without this closeness, priests run the risk of becoming functionaries, theorists, or bureaucrats. Without this closeness, our very humanity is put at risk. The very reason the priest exists is so that Christ, the Good Shepherd can be in the midst of the flock. When the priest or bishop flees from the midst of the flock, he betrays his very reason for being. It harms not only the flock, but also himself.
The other night, I had dinner with a group of lay people and as I looked around the table during a lively discussion, I thought, "I am the least at this table." And that thought filled me with a great joy. Who am I that God should allow me be in the midst of these people? Their lives and their example educate me in the Christian life. They teach me not only how to be a shepherd, but they teach me how to be a good sheep. They teach me how to be a man. Without this closeness, my humanity would be suffocated.
I'm guessing that Pope Francis is a man who will sometimes say or do something that he will later regret. That's what happens when you step outside of the bulletproof glass. Living in the midst of the flock will mean that the shepherd sometimes winds up smelling bad! Pope Francis would probably say that unless we wind up smelling bad now and again, we really aren't being good shepherds! People probably aren't looking for perfect shepherds. They are looking for shepherds who love them and want to be close to them; shepherds who really know them and shepherds who are really known by them. And, this closeness gives such a beautiful freedom to preach the Gospel in all of its integrity because the people know that you would only preach it to them because you love them.
When I look at Pope Francis, I think that his pastoral concern for the people is just one reason why he walks in the midst of them. I think the other reason is because he needs to be in their midst for his own sake. This is more and more my experience of priesthood. I can only understand my life when I am in the midst of the people; in the midst of the Church. Behind the bulletproof glass, we are kept safe from all of the complications that come from contact with the people. Behind the bulletproof glass of fear, of careerism, and of moralism, the priest's humanity atrophies and the flock suffers as a result.
Looking good and being safe from the complications of life is never going to save me. Being in the midst of the flock, loving the people and being loved by them is the riskiest place to be. And this risk brings a joy and a newness to a priest's life that is beyond compare. One only needs to look at Pope Francis to know this.