The “Un-hefted” Vanishing Flock

When Irishman Declan Dinneny spoke, I caught every fifth word. His voice came in a wild chorus of undulated high pitches that crescendoed when he spoke of something important, like maybe a heifer who’d miscarried that morning. His farm was buried in Irish countryside, where he lived with his elderly parents in an old home that had a small candle in the parlor illuminating the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Declan was fence-post skinny, looked to have an unspooled bale of straw for hair, and could throw down a pint of Guinness faster than anyone I knew. But he’d earned that pint; I knew no man who worked harder. I fell immediately in love with him and his simple way.

I hadn’t seen Declan in more than 20 years, so it was interesting that he came to mind three times this past week; once during a conversation with a priest following a weekday Mass, again after reading the staggeringly beautifully-written memoir The Shepherd’s Life by English author James Rebanks, and again just this morning when I read Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori’s open response to President Trump’s assessment of the city of Baltimore (where I once lived for seven years).

Declan was the only shepherd I had ever known. On two occasions, while spending time with his humble farming family in the hillside village of Killeshandra in County Cavan, I watched as Declan whistled tunes and milked cows, slaughtered chickens, addressed his crops, baled hay, and drained a few pints at the smoke-filled corner pub at the close of day. My most vivid memory, though, and the one that most caused me to marvel, was the way Declan commanded his large flock of sheep. I consider myself blessed to have witnessed it. Interspersed between our conversation as we proceeded down a hillside path was his staccato burst of short, quick calls and whistles. For the length of five football fields of wavy green pastureland, he’d managed to lead more than fifty sheep down a steep hill, across a country road, and into a pen carved into the pocket of a valley. No sheep dog was required, just Declan’s voice. He spoke. The flock followed.

In Rebanks’s unsentimental account of shepherding in the weather-miserable Lake District in Northern England, he described a fascinating shepherding technique called “hefting.” For many hundreds of years, shepherds in the mountainous region of his homeland have permitted their sheep to roam free — unfenced. Should his Herdwick flock have the instinct to do so, they could wander off to the farthest reaches of Scotland, many hundreds of miles away.

But his Herdwicks never do. They keep, as if an invisible hand tethers them to their shepherd. The sheep instinctually trust James Rebanks. As they trusted James’s dad, Tom, and Tom’s dad, William, etc. and for many generations before them in England’s high Cumbrian hills. Over the space of time, these Herdwicks have obliged a gravitational pull toward solidity; a pull to right order. Staying has become the flock’s redoubtable instinctual heirloom.

Rebanks arrives home each night to his family caked in livestock feces and blood. Mud is spread thickly from the bottom of his boots up past the thighs on his trousers. His hair has often been urinated upon. His kids point out fresh gashes on his thick arms (new “bark”). Shepherding stigmata.

What affected me most forcefully about Declan and again with James Rebanks was their blood loyalty to shepherd their flock. “Paranoid, maybe,” Rebanks admitted in his book. “But it is my job to fret about my sheeps’ safety.”

Perhaps Pope Francis’s most quoted line is his request that shepherds smell like their sheep. Declan and Rebanks would have belly laughed at such sentiment. They wear their sheep on their bodies and clothes, as mucked-up tattoos of indelible allegiance. And because these two shepherds safeguard with ferocity, their sheep have become hardened for whatever may come.

Too many American bishops reside in what look like mansions or palaces. Many have chefs, chauffeurs, and cache. They do not track in muck with their loafers; feces is not caked onto their croziers. Their headdress isn’t a crown of thorns; it’s a custom-fit mitre. And so what of their sheep? Do they stick around — invisibly hefted — like Rebanks’s Herdwicks. No. Catholics flee from the Church today like the Israelites from Pharaoh. And many who remain are unformed in their faith, like millions of antelopes grazing in fields amid crouched lions.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said to the Pharisees (Jn 10:11).

Instinctually, the good shepherd knows what needs addressing and what needs to be ignored. He is not risk-adverse to danger because he’s tethered to obligation; he’s committed to souls. A shepherd keeps his flock; it marks his identity.

St. John Fisher, who was executed by King Henry VIII during the English Reformation, watched in horror as hundreds of bishops and priests ceded to King Henry’s request that they accept him as Supreme Head of the Church of England. Before his lonesome death, Fisher pleaded in 1508 to God for strong and holy bishops. “Lord, according to Your promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The Apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost,” Fisher wrote in a prayer.

So, good Lord, do now in like manner again with Thy Church militant; change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stone; set in Thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labours, watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold and heat . . . by this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout all the world.

Fisher was begging God for spiritual Declan Dinnenys and James Rebanks. Strong men willing to embrace martyrdom to lead their sheep the fullness of life; men willing to proclaim the unfiltered Catholic Faith as the blazing furnace of Truth that it is.

Archbishop Lori has addressed the scourge of racism often and with eloquence this past year. And his culturally-sensitive defense of Baltimore against President Trump was seen by many in the city to be a valorous act of a supportive leader.

Good shepherds, though — those on hillsides as well as those in chanceries — understand spiritual fatherhood is more demanding than vocal leadership. Good shepherds don’t waste time with items of little consequence. They are active protectors — one of bodies; the other, souls. Neither sticks his finger into the air to see which way the wind blows before engaging in his toil. Neither sticks his nose into other sheepfolds. There’s plenty of able-mouthed Al Sharptons for that. Good shepherds stay attuned to their own corner of the world; to the souls and sheep within their reach. They climb crags, descend into ravines and confront the actual causes for a travailed soul or city. It is only then that the work of healing can begin.

Spiritual fatherhood — true shepherding — demands spiritual, physical and intellectual effort. It demands a sacrificial safeguarding of souls; the anchoring of them to dogma, doctrine, and Christ’s heart. This is the lone action required by Baltimore clergy today. Society is fast becoming paganized. And Donald Trump simply cannot take the blame for this one.

Priesthood has always been associated with the cross. The good shepherd understands this, so he steps into harsh realities and does what he can each day — because he’s vowed to God to take on the burden.

A priest told me on the way out of Mass the other day that a common priest friend, a well-respected Rector at a nearby seminary, had stepped into one of those harsh realities at a Theology on Tap talk he gave that touched on transgenderism, homosexuality, gender roles, and God’s creative wisdom and design of the human body. He gave this talk in Dupont Circle, widely known as the “gayest” section of Washington D.C. Some within that community even decided to attend.

I asked the priest how it went over.

“It went fine,” the priest said. “[This priest] is a shepherd. This is what he does.”


This article first appeared at Catholic Exchange. It has been lightly edited in light of house style.

Kevin Wells About Kevin Wells

Kevin Wells is a former sports reporter with the Tampa Tribune, where he covered major-league baseball and other sports. He is the author of Burst, A Story of God’s Grace When Life Falls Apart. His book The Priests We Need to Save the Church is available at, as well as at some of your favorite local Catholic booksellers.

Wells is President of the Monsignor Thomas Wells Society for Vocations. His work with youth earned him the James Cardinal Hickey National Figure Award from the Archdiocese of Washington. He lives in Millersville, MD, with his wife and three children.

In 2009, he survived a close brush with death, being anointed by Fr. James Stack — the longtime best friend of his murdered uncle, Msgr. Thomas Wells — after invasive surgery failed to stop a brain hemmorrhage.


  1. Thank you for this. I love the vivid portrayal of what it means to be a true-life shepherd, and I pray that bishops and priests who will be bishops some day will read it and learn.