The Culmination of John Paul II’s Pontificate, Third Sunday of Easter (A), April 10, 2005

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Third Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 10, 2005
Acts 2:14,22-28; 1Pet 1:17-21; Lk 24:13-35

1) Two days ago, we witnessed the largest funeral in human history. Four million people attended. Up to two billion people watched on television. The whole world stopped to mark the death of a man whose life made more of a difference for the good of the world than perhaps any other person’s in our lifetime. When you look at the circumstances of his life, his achievements are all the more striking. Who could have ever predicted that a boy from an obscure Polish village, whose mom died before he was nine, whose sister died before he was born, whose older brother died when he was twelve, whose dad left him without any relatives when he perished when Karol Wojtyla was 22, who spent his 20s under the brutality of the Nazis, his 30s, 40s and 50s under the oppression of the Soviet Communists — who had, in other words, everything working against him and every excuse in the book — would have become one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen? And as Pope he led despite having a bullet pierce five vital organs, despite broken hips and bad hip replacements, despite Parkinson’s disease, old age, tracheotomies and feeding tubes.

2) This past week he has received accolades and encomia from world leaders, from heads of other religions, from the rich and famous and from millions of ordinary people who waited up to 20 hours just to have 30 seconds to pass by his casket and pay their respects. But many of the public tributes didn’t come close to capturing what made this man so great. They talked about the crucial role he played in the downfall of the Iron Curtain. They talked about him as a great statesman and philosopher. They talked about his personal gifts and charisma. They talked about the drama of his life as a witness of, and victor over, the worst of the 20st century. But all of this was, frankly, superficial. It was only scratching the surface of who this man was and what made this man so great.

3) Back in 1995, when Pope John Paul II was speaking to George Weigel — an American whom I’m privileged to call a friend — about George’s writing a new, authoritative biography, the Holy Father mentioned that the problem with most of those who had tried to write about him up until that point was that they tried to understand him “from the outside.” He said the only way truly to understand him was “from the inside.” John Paul II, first and foremost, was a DISCIPLE OF JESUS CHRIST. He believed in Jesus. He trusted in him and in his promises. He received his strength and wisdom from Jesus. He was so courageous because Jesus had told him “do not be afraid.” Jesus was simply the source, center and summit of his entire life.

4) Throughout his pontificate, but especially in the last half-year of it, Pope John Paul II strove to get us to make Jesus the “magnetic pole” of our entire existence as well. As his pontificate and life were coming to an end, he wanted to show us the open secret of his inner life, of his discipleship and apostolate. He did it by proclaiming the Year of the Eucharist, which would run from October 2004 through October 2005. He said this Year of the Eucharist was really the summit and synthesis of his entire pontificate, and it’s no surprise — for there are no coincidences in God — that the Lord Jesus came to call him home smack in the middle of this Eucharistic Year, so that the whole Church, in reflecting on what made John Paul II so great, would be able to follow his example and put his words about Jesus in the Eucharist into practice.

5) The document he gave us to orient us through this Eucharist Year he entitled Mane Nobiscum, Domine, taken from the words of today’s Gospel from the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, “Stay with us, Lord.” Pope John Paul II saw in this Gospel episode the itinerary we walk in the Mass and are called to walk in the Christian life. When he looked at this passage, he broke it down into three parts:

a) The first was when Jesus met the two disciples along the seven-mile path downhill from Jerusalem to Emmaus. That they were heading away from Jerusalem was not just an historical fact, but also a symbol that they were heading away from the faith that Jerusalem signifies. Their hearts had just been put in a blender. They had believed in Jesus, deeming him to be the long-awaited Messiah. Yet their hopes were crushed when they saw him mangled and executed by the Romans. Earlier that day, women had said that his tomb was empty and that they had seen a vision of angels saying he had arisen, but they were obviously reluctant to believe again and have their hopes crushed anew. Jesus met them along the way — he met them where they were at, with all their questions and doubts. Their sadness, however, prevented them from recognizing him in his resurrected body. This seeming stranger stuck his nose into the middle of their conversation and asked, “What are you talking about?” They thought he had no idea! So they told him about Jesus, a “prophet mighty in deed and word,” who they thought might be the one to “redeem Israel,” but who was betrayed and crucified. But then the incognito Savior upbraided them, called them “foolish and slow of heart to believe” and then, starting with Moses and all the prophets, interpreted for them all the passages of Sacred Scripture that referred to why the Messiah “had to suffer these things to enter into his glory.” Doubtless he would have mentioned Isaac’s carrying the wood for the sacrifice on his shoulders. He would have mentioned Moses’ through the Passover leading the people through the Red Sea and desert into the promised land. He would have mentioned how Isaiah had given the prophecy of the Suffering Servant, how the Book of Wisdom described that the just man would be beset by evil doers, how the Psalms had foretold so many details of the crucifixion, how Jonah prophesied his spending three days in the belly of the earth, and so much more. As he was talking, the light of truth began to penetrate the great darkness of their sadness. We learn later that their hearts began to BURN as he spoke to them along the way, even though they still didn’t recognize who he was. They didn’t want this to end. Hence they invited this Wayfarer into their home: “Stay with us!,” they said. Jesus never wants to force himself on us. He wants to be invited. And they did.

b) But Jesus had something far greater in mind than merely staying WITH them. That’s why when he was at table, “he took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them.” Then he seemed to vanish from their midst. But he hadn’t vanished at all, because, as those four verbs indicate to us, he had celebrated with them the Eucharist, just as he had with his apostles three nights earlier in the Upper Room. They could no longer see Jesus with their eyes, but Jesus remained with them under the appearances of the Eucharist. The Lord did not want merely to stay WITH them. He wanted to stay IN them.

c) Presumably, they received the Eucharist that Jesus had handed to them and ate. Then, even though it was already night and there were no streetlights in the ancient world, even though they were probably tired from the seven mile journey downhill, they burst through the door of their home and ran those seven miles up hill in pitch blackness in order to spread the word that they had encountered the Lord Jesus. They had come into contact with Jesus and could not wait even until the morning to share the news.

6) The Pope chose this passage as the theme for the Year of the Eucharist because it charts the itinerary Jesus wants us to walk with him in the Mass and — because the Mass is called to become the center and root, source of summit, of our existence — in our entire lives.

a) We start the Mass with the “liturgy of the word,” in which Jesus wants to open us up to the truths of Sacred Scripture and make our hearts burn again. He wants us to see how all the Scriptures are fulfilled in him. He wants the light that comes from his truth to penetrate whatever darkness we experience, so that we might see him with us along the way, that we might be strengthened by his love in every experience. The Pope says in his beautiful letter, “It is Christ himself who speaks when the Holy Scriptures are read in the Church,” and Christ wants to do with us here on South Street what he did with the disciples on Emmaus boulevard. But we have to ask ourselves, with great candor, whether we come with the hope that Christ will set our hearts on fire when he speaks to us in Sacred Scripture. Are we at the edge of our seats, conscious that it is God who is speaking to us and giving us the answers to the deepest questions we have or ought to have, that he is giving us the answer to who we are, who we called to be, and what we’re called to do? Sometimes I think we can approach Sacred Scripture with ears covered with asbestos ear-muffs and hearts surrounded by fire-extinguishing foam. Some times — for some people, most times — we don’t pay attention to these “words of eternal life,” words that are supposed to change our lives for the better every time God speaks to us. We don’t allow them to penetrate. This is the first thing the Pope calls us to work on, to ground our lives on the Word of God.

1. In terms of practical suggestions, I’d first ask you please — unless you’re hearing-impaired — to put down the missalette during the Liturgy of the Word and LISTEN to the word being proclaimed. Close your eyes, if need be, and picture God’s saying to you those words, either directly by Christ in the Gospel, or through one of his prophets, apostles or evangelists.

2. If God speaks to us in the Sacred Scriptures, then we should obviously allow him to speak to us in our homes. So often so many other voices are heard in our homes, from the television and radio, but how often do we allow God’s saving word to echo without our walls, within our minds and hearts?

3. Likewise in our personal prayer, many of us need to structure it so that we hear God’s voice more clearly speaking to us through the pages of the Bible. Prayerful meditation on the words of Sacred Scripture is the way those words will take on our flesh.

b) The more we hear God’s voice speaking to us through Sacred Scripture, the easier it will be to recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. The reason for this is simple: in Sacred Scripture, Jesus speaks to us about the Eucharist, about how we need to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Moreover, the more we base our lives on what Jesus has told us in the Gospel, the more we will trust in him, and the easier it will be to hear his voice and trust him when he says to us in the Mass, “This is my body, given for you,” “this is the cup of my blood… shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins.” The more we read about Jesus miracles the easier it will be for us to accept the mind-blowing reality of the continuous miracle of the Eucharist.

c) Thirdly, if we truly become aware that Jesus is speaking to us at Mass as he interprets for us the Scriptures and stays not just with us but in us in the Eucharist, then we will be bursting with the desire to share him with others. Whether we get it or not, Jesus speaks to us at the Mass and feeds us with his flesh and blood. But the index, the litmus test, the criterion for us to determine if we really do get it is whether or with how much zeal we share that reality with others. I used to use an analogy with the high school students where I was chaplain. I told them that if I said that Bill Gates was coming to our school tomorrow for Mass and was going to give a half-million dollars to everyone who came through the door, what would they do? Would they call your family members and friends to let them know? Would they tell their neighbors? Would they tell even strangers? Most admitted that they would spread that news like wild-fire. Yet how many of us realize that what — rather Who — we receive in the Eucharist is infinitely more valuable than all the money in the whole world? How many of us spread the word that God is hear speaking in this very building, that God is feeding us with himself? We don’t even have to run seven miles up hill in darkness to spread this word. We can drive. We can use the phone. We can write or email. But if we truly get the AWESOME reality that Mass is — in other words, if we don’t take it for granted — we will naturally do, in our own day, what the disciples in Emmaus do naturally did in theirs.

7) In asking us to base our lives on this Emmaus passage, Pope John Paul II was not asking us to do anything that he himself hadn’t done. He was passing on to us the secret of his life.

a) His pastoral zeal had its source in the fact that he was thoroughly imbued with the Word of God. Just like the Blessed Mother — to whom he was consecrated, “totus tuus” — listened to the word of God and treasured it so deeply within that that word took on her flesh and dwelled among us, so Pope John Paul II incarnated that same word, which is why so many of us saw Christ so easily working in and through him. On the day he was ordained a deaco in the clandestine seminary of Krakow, Cardinal Sapieha gave him the book of the Gospel and told him, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” And he did. Later, when he was ordained a bishop, they opened the book of the Gospel and put it on his head, so that his thoughts and his words would reverberate and enflesh Sacred Scripture. Very eloquently yesterday, at his funeral, they put the book of Sacred Scripture on his casket, and the Holy Spirit, blowing ever as he wills, kept blowing the pages back and forth as a tangible sign of how thoroughly Pope John Paul II used to turn us comprehensively to the reality of God’s speaking to us through all of those sacred pages. The reason why John Paul II was such an effective evangelist, why he was able to set people’s hearts on fire for God, was because Jesus had already set his heart aflame through his word. Like at the Easter vigil, when we light our candles from the Paschal Candle (symbolizing Christ) and then light others’ tapers, so John Paul’s inner taper was ignited by Christ’s word and John Paul II went the equivalent of 28 times around the globe and three times round trip to the moon trying to light all our inner tapes with that same fire.

b) Likewise all his strength came from his relationship with the living Lord in the Eucharist. He recognized Jesus in the “breaking of the bread.” He knew that each day when he celebrated Mass, he held his Savior, his divine Boss, in his hands and received him within. His contact with Christ was never theoretical. It was tangible! It was, in fact, EDIBLE! As he consumed the Lord, he was more and more consumed by the Lord, and started to become more and more whom he ate. Jesus in the Eucharist was the magnetic pole of his life. He began each day with 90 minutes praying to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament before Mass. He returned to visit Jesus at several occasions throughout the day. This was the secret of what was going on “inside” him.

c) Finally, he was bursting with the desire to share Jesus, the love of his inner life, with us. He came to the ends of the earth to celebrate this greatest of all gifts — the Mass — with all God’s people, as he did in October of 1979 on Boston Common. He wrote about this great gift. He preached about it. He lived it. No amount of injuries, sufferings or obstacles could stop him. Only death could stop him. But through this beautiful document and this great year, he preaches to us still.

8 ) Nine days before his death, he sent his last Holy Thursday letter to the priests of the world. In it, he begged us to model our lives on the words of consecration, saying that those words should become the “formula of our life.” Everything we are and do should say, “this is my body give for you… this is my blood, down to its drop, shed for you… this is my whole life, given out of love for you!” In this, too, John Paul II was sharing with us the secret of his own great priestly fruitfulness. He had modeled his entire life on those sacred words, learning how to love as Christ, who said and lived those words, loved us. This Year of the Eucharist is the time for us Catholics to make those words the constitutive reality of our existence.

9) This Year of the Eucharist was the culmination of the Pope’s life, of his entire pontificate. To understand him from the inside means first to understand that he was thoroughly a man of the Eucharist, a man whose entire life was a Mass, “through, with and in” Christ Jesus. He gave us this year almost as his last gift, so that we might know his open secret and make it our own. The Lord, through the Eucharist, was able to take this boy from an obscure Polish village and bear such incredible fruit through him, because his whole life was an “amen!” to the reality of Christ in the Eucharist. If the Lord was able to do that with his faithful disciple from Wadowice, then surely he can do the same with us here in Hyannis, if we’re willing to make of our lives the same “Amen.”

10) We thank God for the graces he gave John Paul throughout his life and gave us through his life. And we ask Him to help us to make John Paul II’s dying wish — that we might become ever more men and women of the Eucharist – a reality. Praised be Jesus Christ!