Accompanying People Back to Jerusalem, The Anchor, August 30, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting into the Deep
August 30, 2013

In his trip to Brazil for World Youth Day, Pope Francis was doing far more than energizing Latin American Catholics and young people from around the world enthusiastically to embrace and live the Catholic faith. He was modeling the way the Church needs to carry out the New Evangelization.

In a remarkable half-hour interview with Brazil’s O Globo Television Network, Pope Francis was asked why he believed so many Brazilian Catholics have been leaving the Church either for Pentecostal groups or abandoning Christianity altogether. His words apply to every country experiencing a hemorrhaging of practicing Catholics precipitating a need for a new evangelization.

“For me,” he said in Spanish, “the fundamental thing is the closeness of the Church. The Church is a mother and neither you nor I are familiar with mothers who relate to their children by correspondence. A mother shows affection, embraces, kisses, and loves. When the Church, occupied by so many things neglects this closeness and communicates only with documents, she’s like a mother who communicates with her children only by letter.”

In many places, he suggested, bishops have written pastoral letters and pastors beautiful bulletin columns for their people, but they haven’t left their offices to go to the peripheries where people are and embrace them and their problems, show them love and affection and accompaniment up close.

Perhaps this happens because their dioceses and parishes are geographically enormous. Perhaps it’s because these shepherds are too introverted and timid.

Regardless, Pope Francis is saying that this is one of the chief reasons for the ecclesiastical exodus. Catholics haven’t been experiencing enough the proximity of the Church.

When a Pentecostal preacher opens up a storefront Church in their neighborhood and knocks at their homes to pray with them, people are understandably drawn by a version of Christianity near to them.

In other places Catholics, convinced that the Church their mother is distant, cold and disconnected from their daily life, just stop practicing Christianity altogether.

Pope Francis’ main objective in Brazil was to show this “maternal closeness” of the Church. He went out into the crowds, kissed hundreds of babies, embraced young people who ran up to him, and journeyed into the shantytowns and even individual homes. In short he incarnated and modeled the affectionate, personal love of a mother.

When Pope Francis spoke to the Brazilian bishops and all the other prelates present in Rio on the same day he gave the television interview, he deepened his analysis of the causes of people abandoning the Church and also sketched the solution.

All of us in the Church, he stressed, needed to ponder very deeply and emulate Jesus’ on the Road to Emmaus.

In Emmaus, Jesus encountered two dejected disciples abandoning Jerusalem. They had placed their hopes in Jesus only to be scandalized and humiliated by his crucifixion.

Jesus met them on the road leading downward from Jerusalem and entered into their conversation concerning recent events. He didn’t halt them in their tracks and command them to turn around at the risk of their eternal salvation. Rather, he accompanied them, trying to shed light on what they had observed and what they had obviously missed.

He made their hearts burn as he spoke to them on the way, such that they begged him to stay with them longer. When he celebrated the Eucharist for them in their home, they recognized him, and with enthusiasm ran out into the darkness up the mountain to Jerusalem to share the news of risen Jesus with others.

Pope Francis declared that today multitudes are wandering on roads away from everything “Jerusalem” signifies, namely, “Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles.” They had placed their hopes in the Christ the Church was offering, only to discover disappointment.

“Perhaps,” the Pope specified, “the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas, perhaps the world seems to have made the Church a relic of the past, unfit for new questions, perhaps the Church could speak to people in their infancy but not to those come of age.”

Regardless, vast hordes are walking away into the night, seeking someone or something else in which to place their hopes.

The Pope says that the Church must be capable, like Christ, of “going forth into their night, … meeting them on their way, … [and] entering into their conversation.”

The Church has to do more than walk at their side and listen to them, he stressed. The Church must be able “to make sense of the ‘night’ contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem” and realize that “the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return.”

More than anything, he underlined, the Church, like Jesus, needs to be capable of “warming hearts,” of addressing the “disappointments present in their hearts” and show how they are paradoxically part of the redemption.

“Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?,” Pope Francis queried, challenging the bishops and the whole Church.

Warming hearts is a precondition to leading people wandering in the night of disappointment and brokenness back to Jerusalem.

For Pope Francis, the road to Rio was the Road to Emmaus. With great maternal tenderness, Christ’s vicar went to warm hearts, to accompany pilgrims along the way, so that, in rediscovering Christ and the brilliance of his light, they might run to Jerusalem and tell everyone that Christ is more alive than ever.

Let’s enter into that same Emmaus journey.