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May 20, 2013

The earthy words of Pope Francis

There is nothing unusual about a Catholic leader urging priests to draw closer to their flocks, to focus on day-to-day issues that bridge the gap between pulpit and pew.

Still, it caught Vatican insiders off-guard when Pope Francis, a week after his installation Mass, used a somewhat pungent image when discussing this problem.

"This is precisely the reason for the dissatisfaction of some, who end up sad -- sad priests -- in some sense becoming collectors of antiques or novelties, instead of being shepherds living with the smell of the sheep," he said. "This I ask you: Be shepherds, with the 'odor of the sheep,' make it real, as shepherds among your flock, fishers of men."

At this point, "it's safe to say everyone in the Catholic world knows that line, if they're paying attention at all," said Father Robert Barron, president of Mundelein Seminary at the University of St. Mary of the Lake near Chicago. He is also known for his work as founder of the Word on Fire media ministry and as an NBC News analyst.

It's easy, when talking about this pope's back-to-basics style, to stress his life in Argentina, growing up in the home of immigrants from northern Italy. But when considering his preaching, said Barron, the key is to remember his experience at the parish and diocesan levels. While Pope Benedict XVI speaks with the precision of an academic comfortable in European classrooms, Pope Francis has spent much of his life preaching in slums.

"When you look at him in the pulpit you just have to say, 'This is a preacher in a parish.' He's going up there with notes, not a formal five-page text" that the Vatican press officers distributed in advance, said Barron in a telephone interview. "Every now and then you catch him looking up with a kind of twinkle in his eyes and you can tell he's enjoying what he's doing, what he's saying."

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