I originally heard the story of the sheep at the fence from an American man who had been to Ireland on business. While he was there, Sean, one of the local men, invited the American to spend Saturday with Sean’s family and enjoy a home-cooked supper. Shortly after the American arrived, Sean’s daughter came into the room saying, “Papa, I saw a sheep with its head poking through the fence. It was looking at me very strangely.”
“Ah. He likely found some tasty grass to nibble on just this side of the fence. Don’t mind him. He’ll find his way home.” he replied and sent her off to play.
A little while later, his daughter came back into the room. Again she said to her father, “Papa, that sheep is still looking at me from the fence.”
“Not to worry. It’s just one of our neighbor’s flock and is a likely just very curious fellow.” He sent her off to help her mother in the kitchen.
They all sat down to supper and after they had finished eating, the children cleared the table and started the dishes. The daughter returned a third time, insistent that the same sheep was still looking at her through the fence. Intrigued, Sean finally decided that perhaps he needed to take a closer look at this nosy sheep. Looking out the window, he saw nothing odd about the sheep. He figured maybe he should take a walk and as he drew closer he realized something was wrong. The sheep didn’t make a sound or even try to run away. When he got right up to it, he could see what they hadn’t been able to see from afar: the sheep was stuck in the fence. Worse, the poor thing had been completely devoured where it stood and only the head and front leg remained intact.
This story came back to me as we headed into Lent. Lately, I’ve found myself speaking far more openly about women’s ordination and my inability to reconcile my experiences of God with the teaching of the Catholic Church. That struggle isn’t a new one. It dates back to the days before my First Communion. I can still show you the spot on which I was standing when the nuns explained to my shocked and horrified little self that girls would never be priests. But such things are not spoken of good Catholic circles. As I’ve finally given up any pretense of acceptance, I’ve heard privately from other Catholic women faced with the same struggle. I’ve heard the same thing from nearly all of them. “Have you ever been able to have an honest conversation about this with any priest in the Church? Because I tried and they shut me down immediately. I was told is these are the rules. Follow them.”
Seriously guys, can’t we do better than that?
I know these are the rules. I get it. But please realize that if the best answer the shepherds can come up with is, These are the rules. there are a lot of sheep who are going to stay stuck in the fence. They’re going to stare back at pulpit with empty eyes, looking for all the world like they’re part of the flock when in reality they’ve been eaten alive by a myriad of doubts and emotions until they end up spiritually dead. If the Catholic priests are to be the shepherds Pope Francis is asking them to be, if they are really going to smell like their sheep – all of their sheep – they need to take a little walk along the fence line and figure out how to help the ones who find themselves caught in the fence. Either find a way to guide them safely and fully into your pasture or find a way to turn them loose so they are free to find safety in another one.
Why do I keep writing about what I see in the Catholic Church? Because I hear things that some priests never will simply because I’m a woman and I’m more out than in now. That makes me a safe sounding board. I hope by bouncing back what I’m hearing, maybe, just maybe, it will open up the floor for a more honest conversation about women’s ordination. No, the rules won’t change but maybe given an honest conversation, some of those women who find themselves caught in the fence will either find their way back in or gracefully find their way out. A true shepherd would rather see his sheep safe in another pasture than dead in the fence. After all, a good shepherd can always recover a lost sheep.