By Barb Arland-Fye
Be a shepherd who lives with the smell of sheep, Pope Francis advises his bishops. That’s advice Bishop Thomas Zinkula of the Davenport Diocese followed literally, after rescuing a sheep hopelessly tangled up in fencing.
The good shepherd had not anticipated saving a sheep of the animal kind when he left Eagles’ Wings retreat center after presiding at Mass on March 15. As he headed to his car on the rural property, Patti Schmidt, who had attended the Mass, called out to him from down the hill. “You’re the shepherd of the flock, one of your sheep needs help,” the bishop recalled her saying.
Schmidt had discovered the sheep first and “noticed it was massively tangled in nylon and plastic fencing. … When I tried to get closer, it became very agitated and frightened, and was flipping about crazily,” she wrote in her account of the story.
Bishop Zinkula, carrying his alb, walked toward Schmidt as she struggled to free the sheep that began choking as the fencing tightened around its neck. She figured that the bishop, a farm boy, would be able to free the sheep. He hung his alb over a section of undamaged fence, away from the sheep, to assist Schmidt.
“The bishop was so calm and started holding the sheep, searching the tangled plastic to determine how badly the animal was stuck,” she wrote. “Keep in mind the sheep had urinated and the ground smelled like sheep poo.”
Bishop Zinkula told Schmidt he didn’t know if the sheep would survive because the plastic was so tight. Trying to loosen it might actually kill the sheep. Schmidt remembered that she had a multi-purpose tool in her purse and fished it out. As the bishop worked his fingers through the nylon rope, Schmidt cut it.
“The sheep dropped to the ground from exhaustion and lay on its side. Death seemed inevitable,” Schmidt said. She asked the bishop if he would pray over the sheep. Her request reminded the bishop of his homily from the Mass at the retreat center, and his reference to intercessory prayer. “I was saying that sometimes we need to put the situation in God’s hands.” So, on the retreat center’s acreage, the bishop prayed to God, “If you want us to save this sheep then help us to save him.”
Schmidt removed the rest of the fencing from the sheep and began gently rubbing its belly to rouse it. As she worked, Bishop Zinkula shared two stories about how he’d rescued deer caught in fences. Schmidt admits she was only half-listening because of her focus on the sheep. “As the bishop continued talking, the sheep, which had been just lying there with its eyes half-closed, started perking up and was, by all appearances gazing at the bishop.”
“ … A few minutes later, the sheep was completely revived and was able to get back on all fours – and wouldn’t you know it, tried to rush through the opening in the fence, the little rascal!!!” Schmidt said. With the bishop’s help, she re-directed the sheep back to the pasture. “It ran back to the corral where the rest of the flock was, and I could hear it bleating, as if to say, ‘Hey guys, I almost died and the bishop saved me.’”
The gaping hole in the fence, the result of the rescue effort, reminded Bishop Zinkula of Father Anthony de Mello’s story about a sheep that found a hole in the fence and crept through it. The sheep was chased by a wolf but eventually was rescued by the shepherd who carried the sheep lovingly back to the fold. The shepherd chose not to close the hole in the fence. For the bishop, the hole symbolizes free will — for sheep of the human kind.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)