The Lost Sheep

 I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

 If a man owns 100 sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the 90 and nine on the desert and go to look for the one that has wandered off and if he finds it I tell you the truth he is happier about the one sheep than about the 99 which did not wander off. In the same way your father in heaven is not willing that any one of these little ones should be lost.

Pope Francis in an interview published in America said: “I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess.”

The little sheep who has wandered away may not know that he is lost. He may think that he’s escaped and found freedom. He may be happily seeking out new pastures, free from the shepherd’s staff and the shepherd’s dog. But when night falls and he is alone, when he cannot find fresh water, when he’s tangled in briars or falls into a pit, when he is threatened by predators, then he cries out for help, but even then the wayward sheep may not know that he needs the shepherd. He may look for salvation elsewhere. It is not the sheep that seeks the shepherd, but the shepherd that must seek out the lost sheep and to do so he must leave the 90 and 9 in the wilderness.

It is not surprising that, when the sheep who did not wander see the shepherd leaving them to seek out the lost sheep, they may be frightened and feel deserted and abandoned. They may not trust the shepherd to return. They may fear that without a shepherd they too will be lost.

When Pope Francis came to Rome, and had the mantle of the shepherd of souls put on his shoulders, he undoubtedly looked at the situation in Europe and saw his task was not to bring back a single lost sheep. He was faced with the reality that a substantial portion of the flock had wandered off. How do you bring back not one but scores, thousands, hundreds of thousands of lost sheep who don’t want to come back, who see the shepherd as their enemy? How do you bring back those who have fallen into sexual sin, women who’ve had abortions, men addicted to pornography, persons involved in same-sex relationships, the secularized, the relativists, the doubters, and those who cannot forget, let alone forgive the sins of  the past?

Pope Francis has a plan:

The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.

The Pope knows this is not about compromising the Truth, but proclaiming the Gospel:

The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

How do we as Church seek and bring back the lost sheep? First, we need to understand how they got lost. When I began to write, I focused on the pro-life issue. I decided to interview women who had had abortions. I discovered that almost everything I had thought about what drives a woman to abortion was wrong. These were wounded women. Yes, wounded by the abortion and the awful realization of what they had done, but long before they ever entered the door of the abortion clinic, many of them were carrying despair, darkness, depression, and in some cases death in their hearts. The wounds they carried were not recent. Often they originated in damaging childhood experiences. They didn’t know their own worth. They did not feel loved for themselves and allowed themselves to be misused by men, letting sex be a substitute for the love they craved. They didn’t know how much God loved them. They didn’t trust him to find a way out of their problems. And after the abortion they didn’t feel they had a right to come to him and receive forgiveness. And so they fell into even more destructive relationships. Many became pregnant again in even more problematic situations. Some used drugs or alcohol to kill the pain.

The way back to the flock does not begin with convincing these women abortion is wrong, but uncovering the early wounds, the ones that occurred long before they became sexually involved, long before they were pregnant. These are the wounds that need to be healed and the best way to address such wounds is by a thick application of the love of Jesus Christ, administered by someone who accepts the wounded woman in all her sinfulness, someone who can listen and, no matter what the woman says, can reply, “I love you, Jesus loves you, the Father loves you and there is nothing absolutely nothing that God cannot forgive, indeed is not waiting to forgive.” Such love must be absolutely sincere. The belief in the power of forgiveness absolutely rock solid. And this is only the first step to freedom. There is rarely a single wound and because each wound is unhealed and painful, the wounded person often adopts what the psychiatrists call defense mechanisms—self-destructive behaviors designed to protect her from future harm, but which instead trap her and prevents healing.

Pope Francis understands the dynamic of healing and conversion:

I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

The same dynamic can be found in many of those experiencing same-sex attraction. In the course of my work, a woman sought me out and told me her story. For many years, she had been involved in a series of lesbian relationships. Each relationship started with an intense passion and then fell apart. She came to believe that there was something wrong with her. She and her current partner attended a Protestant prayer service at which a woman minister gave an altar call. The woman told the minister that she was lesbian. The minister said Jesus doesn’t mind. However, the moment she gave her life to Jesus she knew that he did mind and she could no longer engage in homosexual intimacy. Her partner left her. Alone she sought refuge in the Catholic church in which she had been raised. She would go each day and sit before the tabernacle and ask Jesus to help her. Gradually, her same-sex attraction diminished. When I first met her she still had a male haircut and was wearing a man’s shirt, pants, and shoes. We prayed together and she revealed how as a child she had been raped by a family member and forced to watch as he raped another girl. She had told no one, and tried to avoid the man, but her parents forced her to attend social gathering where he was present. While she loved her mother, she saw her as weak and unable to protect herself or her children. She felt that her father never affirmed her feminine identity. Given this history, it is not surprising that she fell into same-sex relationships. The love of God, inner healing, and forgiveness of those who had hurt or failed her healed her wounds. When I saw her a year later, I didn’t recognize her. She was a different person. Her hair had grown out. She was wearing a feminine jumper and blouse and her face was radiant.

It is all very good to say we want sinners to repent, but are we as a church ready for them? Are we ready to descend with them into the darkness of their woundedness without getting lost ourselves? Are we ready to listen to them, and, no matter the horrors they reveal, tell them “God loves you and I love you.” Jesus doesn’t ask the sinner to clean up his act first and then when he gets everything in order present himself at the door of the confessional. Rather, the road back begins with knowing one is loved no matter what he has done, no matter how far he has fallen.

While not everyone is called to walk into the darkness and bring the wounded into the light, all Christians are called to withhold judgment and pray. If we see a person acting out obscenely, we can consider the very real possibility that this person was sexually abused as a child. If we see someone seeking love in all the wrong places, we can think perhaps this is because they didn’t receive love from the right sources. This is not to condone sin, but to really love the wounded. This is the challenge Pope Francis puts before us.

Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Christ the Good Shepherd” was painted by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (c. 1660).

Dale O'Leary


Dale O’Leary is the author of The Gender Agenda and One Man, One Woman. Her blog can be found at

  • Mary

    I think we can go back and read some of the Epistles that the apostles and St. Paul gave when the early Christians were waundering to see that they did not water down the message but were always prepared ti give it straight out. St. John’s epistle letter is one of my favorites and seems so far from what it happening routinely in our Church’s Parishes today ” 11] For this is the declaration, which you have heard from the beginning, that you should love one another. [12] Not as Cain, who was of the wicked one, and killed his brother. And wherefore did he kill him? Because his own works were wicked: and his brother’ s just. [13] Wonder not, brethren, if the world hate you. [14] We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not, abideth in death. [15] Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer. And you know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in himself.” Preaching the Godpel of Life in regards to abortion, contraception and sexuality which is against the laws of God is part of the commission of love given to the Apostles. Love the sinner but always hatre the sin— I am afraid the Pope’s words will change our Church into anothe Congreagational church with no comtroversial teachings being addressed. This is really not loving others. I would that our Church would become smaller if it means the people who do not want to hear the truth about these issues would freely choose to leave. The we could feel confident that everyone receiving the Eucharist was not also rejecting God’s Laws and thus committing blashemy in our Church. Should’t we be concerned whether God is being loved in our Church or is all about us?

    • Mary

      Mary, you must not believe that God has chosen Francis to be our Pope. You must not trust that God knows what he is doing. God has always taken care of his church and he always will. My prayer is that you and others will not condemn our Pope, but will support him, pray each day for him and ask God to give you the wisdom to trust.

      • Adam__Baum

        It may be possible that the selection of this Pope or any other, lies in the domain of God’s permissive will, rather than his ordinate will.

    • Thomas

      The catch phrase: “love the sinner and hate the sin” is just so axiomatic, right? Well, to the lost sheep it seems pharisaical, so easy to reject. Why hate at all? Any mention of hate only gives those who consciously lead people into sin the foothold; it’s simply ammunition to call us “haters”. The bumper stickers proclaim, “Hate is not a family value”, and that simple message is winning the hearts of thousands. Pope Francis is calling us to enter the darkness and to emerge with other souls. If you enter the people’s dark night admonishing them — telling them how much you and God hate what they do — then you may well emerge again without being lost, but you are more than likely to return to the Catholic Ghetto alone. And if you stay there and stand in front of our church with placards proclaiming some version of “we love you, but hate what you do”, who will enter?

  • Therese

    Yes, as Catholics we need to be concerned about the lost sheep in our lives but people aren’t sheep. We have been given the gift of free will from God and ultimately it is we who must choose to humble ourselves, admit we did wrong, and be receptive to God’s grace in order to change our disordered lives. We first have to admit to ourselves that we are the one responsible for having chosen to commit a sin, even though there may be circumstances in our backgrounds that factor into degrees of culpability for the sin. How many Catholics know that It is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy to admonish the sinner in a charitable way because you are looking out for their immortal soul? Sadly, this is now seen as “judging” others, as if performing a charitable Work of Mercy is a bad thing, or even a sin in itself.

    I hope we aren’t embarking on a return to the naive psychological outlook of the 1960s and 70s where it was thought if you were just super-nice to people committing sinful acts, and didn’t address their bad behavior lest you damage their self-esteem, that eventually they would want to change because they would be so impressed with your niceness that it would rub off on them and they would want to be just like you. Maybe that worked for some but that approach just seemed to allow most people to continue engaging in bad behavior with little to no consequences to them at all – not even a guilty conscience. The current moral collapse of our country is the rotten fruit of allowing sin to go unchecked for fear of being labeled as “judging” others.

    If you read some of our past Popes’ great encyclicals you will see that they had no such cowardly fear of addressing the subject of sins.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Therese wrote, “ultimately it is we who must choose to humble ourselves”

      Yet, St Augustine, the Doctor of Grace, says, “it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy.” [Rom 9:16] For, although he calls many, he has mercy on those whom he calls in a way suited to them so that they may follow. But it is false to say that “it is not of God who hath mercy but of man who willeth and runneth,” because God has mercy on no man in vain. He calls the man on whom he has mercy in the way he knows will suit him, so that he will not refuse the call.”

      Again, he says, “who would dare to affirm that God has no method of calling whereby even Esau might have applied his mind and yoked his will to the faith in which Jacob was justified? But if the obstinacy of the will can be such that the mind’s aversion from all modes of calling becomes hardened, the question is whether that very hardening does not come from some divine penalty, as if God abandons a man by not calling him in the way in which he might be moved to faith. Who would dare to affirm that the Omnipotent lacked a method of persuading even Esau to believe?”

      Thus, Scripture also says, “I will have mercy on whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please Me” [Exod. 33:19]

    • gsk

      @Therese: I didn’t see anything “naive” in Dale’s piece, nor did she suggest being “super-nice” to anyone. Perhaps you should read it again. She said that we begin with love, and in that wise we listen and pray for guidance. This calls to mind the Scripture, “Woe to those who scandalise the little ones.” With attentive motherly/fatherly hearts, we can help the broken souls along the path to wholeness, and the Holy Spirit will bring the proper measure of contrition at the right time. To heap judgement and guilt on a soul that cannot see the way to God’s healing embrace is not a spiritual work of mercy, but cruel and counterproductive.

      The shepherd doesn’t go out and berate the lost lamb but calls him to safety. How that is done with each one takes prayer and patience.

      • Therese

        You may have overlooked that I said “It is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy to admonish the sinner in a charitable way”. In our modern wisdom shall we just throw out this traditional Catholic Church teaching of the Spiritual Works of Mercy because admonishing the sinner in a charitable way would “heap judgment and guilt on a soul…”? Were all the previous popes, bishops, priests, saints, and faithful “cruel and counterproductive” for performing the Spiritual Works of Mercy by admonishing sinners in order to help save their souls? To our contemporary world, apparently so! Ultimately, only God will judge each one of us. But He also gave us the gift of reason which allows us to discern right actions from wrong ones.

  • tamsin

    Beautiful reflection, thanks.

    They didn’t know their own worth.

    Without any numbers to back me up, I’m guessing that when women grow up being told they are disposable, it is easier for them to imagine disposing of their own children.

    I appreciate Pope Francis’ strong condemnation of our throwaway culture.

  • Pingback: The Big Interview of Pope Francis (Monday) | Big Pulpit()

  • Giovanni A. Cattaneo

    Isn’t this what has been tried for the last 50 years? Since, you know, the “council.”

    Isn’t that when we started to lose those sheep? When we stopped talking about the wrong of sin?

    If one is not told something is, indeed, wrong. Then, what motivation is there to stop doing it?

    More poison, anyone?

    • Bob

      I believe C.S. Lewis said “The greatest trick Satan has played on us is we believe he no longer exists.” Sin has been neutered in our society, and in a large part, it has been neutered in the Catholic faith.

  • wcbeckman

    Thank you, Dale. You hear the Pope’s words with the ears and heart of the Gospel and free from political ideology and moralism.

  • NDaniels

    On page 116-117 of his book On Heaven and Earth, pope Francis condones same-sex sexual unions that are private, do not include children, and are not called marriage.

    As the mother of a daughter who developed a same-sex sexual inclination as the result of the perfect storm that included a date-rape by a young man she knew and trusted during her freshman year of college, I Love my daughter, as I Love all my children, and because I Love her, I want her to learn to develop healthy and Holy relationships that are grounded in authentic Love.

    A Pope who was in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, would never condone same-sex sexual acts, or any sexual act that does not respect the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the human person, nor would he claim that there is such a thing as a “private” relationship because he would recognize that we exist in relationship with God.

    • Adam__Baum

      “As the mother of a daughter who developed a same-sex sexual inclination as the result of the perfect storm that included a date-rape by a young man she knew and trusted during her freshman year of college, I Love my daughter, as I Love all my children, and because I Love her, I want her to learn to develop healthy and Holy relationships that are grounded in authentic Love.”

      I’m sorry that your daughter experienced this all too common occurrence, which is an epidemic on college campuses. I hope that she somehow realizes that she is reacting to a trauma by cutting herself off from the love of a man who wouldn’t take by force, that which can only be given by a wife to her husband in love.

      However, unless your first paragraph is a quote that you are responsding to in the third paragraph, they appear to contradict each other.

      • NDaniels

        My concern is that the election of pope Francis is not valid because prior to being elected pope, Francis supported same-sex sexual unions as long as they were private, did not include children, and were not called marriage.

        One cannot condone same-sex sexual unions without condoning same-sex sexual acts. Catholics recognize that we exist in relationship with God; there is no such thing as a “private” relationship.