“Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?”
During his July 2013 visit to Brazil, Pope Francis reflected on the meaning of those words from the today’s gospel with the bishops of Brazil. He reminded the bishops that many people of the world today are like those broken-hearted disciples of the Lord who, in their grief were kept from recognizing the Lord Jesus when he came to join them on the road to Emmaus. They were walking away, sad and disillusioned, from Jerusalem where the church was gathered in hiding.
Using the gospel story of Emmaus, the Holy Father talked about people who have left the church because they “now think that the church — their Jerusalem — can no longer offer them anything meaningful and important.” He did not blame modern culture, he did not lay the blame at the doorstep of relativism, consumerism, and other “isms” rather, he asked the bishops to examine their own ministry to see if the trouble might begin with us, the disciples of Jesus.
“Perhaps (people leave Jerusalem and) the church (because) it appears too weak, too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps (they experience the church as) a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the church a relic of the past; perhaps the church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age. At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people.”
What do you think? Do you know people who have walked away from the church for these reasons and others like them? What should we do? Are we just supposed to say, “Well, good-bye and good luck.” What was Jesus’ response to the disciples who thought they would have to look elsewhere for God after the death of Jesus? Did he say, well my church will be smaller without them but it will be stronger?” No. The Emmaus story tells us differently. Jesus went to find them. He walked with them and listened…for a long time. He listened to their confusion and their sorrow and frustration. Only after he listened did he speak.
And oh how he spoke! He showed them the heart of God. He showed them the Father’s plan in what had happened to him and to them. What does the gospel say? Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures. Jesus, as it were, takes them to the front side of God’s tapestry and helps them see how the threads of suffering and pain were really the weavings of God’s mercy and redemption. When the afternoon walk was done their hearts were repaired by the beauty of Jesus’ patient conversation.
Pope Francis suggests that this is what we need to do for our friends who have left us. “For ordinary people the mystery (of God’s love) enters through the heart.” The missionary role of the church is not about winning an argument but offering something beautiful. “Only the beauty of God can attract. God’s way is through enticement, allure,” the Holy Father told the bishops. (In true ministry) “He reawakens in us a desire to make known his beauty. Mission is born precisely from this divine allure, by this amazement born of encounter.” “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” the disciples asked one another.
Faced with this Emmaus situation, what does Pope Francis suggest that we do for folks who have become disheartened and disillusioned with the church? He says…
We need a church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered (by the world to be) barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning. …Are we still a church capable of warming hearts? A church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles. … Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?
Something tells me that Pope Francis believes that with the help of the Holy Spirit we can still walk with people who need someone to listen respectfully, compassionately, to their questions. The walk to Emmaus still happens when we care enough to listen…for a long time and then tell the story of a love that is stronger than death and a beauty that cannot be defaced by sin.
This homily was written with the help of Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese who reported on the Holy Father’s 2013 visit to Brazil.