“Where’s Wooly?” shouted Father Robert Cooper, dressed in full shepherd’s garb while leading 24 second graders on a hunt for a sheep named “Wooly” lost somewhere inside St. Benilde Church.
Every time Father Cooper called out Wooly’s name, the second graders got closer and closer to a pre-recorded sound of a sheep bleating. Once found, Wooly – in the form of a large stuffed animal – was lovingly cleaned of his splinters, washed in a pretend brook and lifted onto Father Cooper’s shoulders.
“Rejoice with me! For my little sheep Wooly was lost but now he’s found!” said Father Cooper during the Jan. 25 dramatization based on “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” from the Gospel of St. Luke. The costumed re-enactment, which took place during a Saturday morning prayer service, followed the reading of the actual Gospel story and concluded right before the second graders received their first reconciliation.
“I think this Gospel is important in the sense that it helps children to understand and truly embrace God’s mercy,” said Father Cooper before the first reconciliation candidates – students from St. Benilde School and Parish School of Religion – saw their pastor illustrate the lengths to which God goes to find his lost children and joyfully forgive them of their sins.
“At an adult level, this particular Gospel does not make much sense,” Father Cooper noted. “None of us in our business practices would leave 99 good sheep in order to search for one. Most of us would take a tax deduction, write off the loss and stay with the 99. But that’s not the way in which God’s mercy operates; he always seeks us out!”
Father Cooper, who also presented the “Lost Sheep” skit at his previous assignments at St. Peter in Covington and St. Ann in Metairie, said he came up with the idea after praying about how to make catechesis related to reconciliation “creative, fresh and alive” for second graders.
A key part of Father Cooper’s re-enactment is that viewers get to witness his transformation into the Good Shepherd; he begins the reflection clothed in his regular priestly vestments then slowly adds elements of a shepherd’s attire.
Father Cooper also gave a name to his lost sheep – Wooly – to remind youngsters that God knows, calls and embraces each of his precious children by name.
“The Lord is always searching for us,” he said. “The Lord calls us by name and he calls us to the sacrament of reconciliation so that we too can be found and freed and washed clean.”
During the introduction to the skit, the second graders learned that shepherds are responsible for every aspect of their sheep’s care, from feeding to watering to warmth. The close relationship between shepherd and sheep – and its parallel to God’s tender care for his children – would have been something well known to Jesus’ contemporaries, Father Cooper said.
“Jesus in the Gospels is always using images that the people of the time could certainly comprehend and understand,” he said. “Sometimes that is lost on us because our (modern) society is more industrialized.”
In this spirit, the priest regularly incorporates child-friendly images and props into his homilies at school Masses and prayer services. Among his other notable portrayals are those focusing on St. Nicholas, St. Francis of Assisi and the Ten Commandments. For the second graders’ first Communion in May, Father Cooper will use props to convey the importance of the Eucharist.
“The theme of that one is, ‘Things are more than what they appear to be,’” Father Cooper said, adding that one of the highlights of his priesthood is when children eagerly tell their parents what they have learned at Mass or in the classroom.
“Then I know that it has been presented in a way that not only has captured their attention, but has conveyed the message and brought them joy,” he said. “When they can articulate (the lessons they have been taught), then we have certainly achieved something really glorious for the Lord!”