MANY CATHOLICS are deeply scandalised by the Church’s complicity in the sexual abuse scandal. Young people feel the Church is out of touch, against women, against gay people. They want out.
There is a story about a similar moment of disillusionment. It is our story too. Two disciples flee to Emmaus just after Easter. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel, but he had failed. There were reports from women, who were saying that Jesus had risen from the dead, but this was dismissed as “an idle tale” (Luke 24.11). They are only women! The disciples have lost faith and are ditching the community in Jerusalem. They have given up. They are just like many disillusioned young Catholics whom the Church wishes to reach today.
How does Jesus reach them? The two disciples are talking intensely about what has happened when they meet a stranger. He asks them: “What are you talking about?” He invites them to express their disappointment, their anger. Our preaching begins in listening to the affliction of our people.
One of them replies: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” (24:18). Like so many young people, they think he has no idea of what they are living. “You don’t know what it is like to be a young woman with an unwanted baby on the way, or to be gay and to feel rejected by the Church.”
WE ONLY HAVE authority if we give authority to their experience and hurt. To be honest, I sometimes long to talk about something other than the sexual abuse crisis or the position of women in the Church, but I must go on listening and sharing the hurt of people who are leaving the Church, which must be mine too. Then maybe a moment will come when I will be able to open up the Scriptures as the stranger did for those disciples.
We need to listen not just to their hurt but to their joy. What sets their hearts on fire? What are they passionate about? If it is football, then let’s found a football club! The English Dominicans founded the club that became Newcastle United. The prior of our Newcastle priory used to kick the first ball of the season until the Second World War. If it is song, let’s listen to their songs and compose ones that they will love.
The two disciples are going in the wrong direction, running away from the community in Jerusalem. They have given up on the Church. But the stranger does not tell them to turn back. He walks with them. One of my closest friends left the Order before ordination and lost belief in God. We meet every couple of months for a meal and a drink. Some of his convictions are now contrary to my own. This is deeply painful. But he is a friend, and friendships are for ever. And if I share his journey to Emmaus, away from the Church, maybe one day we will return home together.
Jesus is in Jerusalem, the place of the Resurrection. There he will show himself to the Apostles, and share a meal with them. He is in the centre of the apostolic community. But he is also with the disciples who are fleeing. He is in the centre, and on the margin. We must be in both places too. St Dominic was in medio ecclesiae, in the midst of the Church. We think with the Church. She is our home. And yet we are also people who are at the peripheries. We identify with the questioners and doubters. We must be in Jerusalem, and we must be on the road to Emmaus. If we only identify with the margins, we shall have nothing solid to give to the questioners. If we only identify with the Church, and have no solidarity with those who are far from her, we shall also have nothing to give.
We are called to live the tension between the convictions of the Church and the questions of the world. It is our pain and our living joy. None of us gets the balance perfectly right. Some will belong more naturally to the centre, with an instinctive, unquestioning adherence to her teaching. Others find their ministry in the peripheries, identifying with the people on the edge, the outsiders. Some are Peter the Rock; others are Thomas the Doubter. Some are more naturally conservative, and others temperamentally progressive. But each must value the vocation of the other. Some are the hearts and stomachs of the body of Christ, keeping the whole organism going. Others are the hands reaching out and exploring the outside world.
AS THE TWO disciples drew near to Emmaus, intrigued, they urge the stranger: “Stay with us, for it is towards evening and the day is far spent.” He agrees. The Greek says that he reclined with them at table, at ease. Preaching begins in accepting hospitality. Even when Marie-Dominique Chenu OP, the grandfather of the Vatican Council, was 80 years old, he would go out most evenings to visit artists or listen to politicians, academics or trade union leaders. Late at night we would meet him in the refectory for a last beer. He would ask us: “What have you learnt today? At whose table have you sat?” Serge de Beaurecueil OP, for decades the only Catholic priest in Afghanistan, called himself “a guest in the house of Islam”. If we are invited to rest with young people, or artists or workers, we should take pleasure in being with them, lingering over a meal, sharing their dreams. If we are at home with them, they may become at home in the Church.
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognised him.” The women were right. What opened their eyes to see the Lord? It was seeing the gesture with which, at the Last Supper, he had made his coming death a gift for them. The doors of their imagination were opened by gift. Meister Eckhart said, if the only prayer you ever say is “Thank you”, that is enough. Preachers are grateful guests, grateful for our own lives and for theirs, for each day we live, for the air we breathe, for the food we enjoy. Then our hosts may open their eyes to the greatest gift of all, God.
At the same moment their eyes are opened, Jesus vanishes from their sight. The best preachers, like the best musicians, fade into the background, because people are delighted in the Gospel or the music, not in the preacher or the musician. The temptation is to make ourselves indispensable. But if we are messengers of the Gospel, we too must disappear, like John the Baptist.
THE DISCIPLES try to make sense of what has happened. “Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road?” they say to each other. Joy comes first, and then the knowledge of Jesus. The joy is a sign that they are drawing close to the Gospel but they did not know yet why they were joyful, until they recognised him in the breaking of bread. Now the disciples are free to go home to Jerusalem, just as Jesus left them free to walk in the wrong direction.
Young people want above all to be happy. But their happiness is fragile, to be fought for in a world of violence, sexual abuse, drugs, inner-city desolation and the collapse of the family. It is a happiness which is also an obligation. Shopkeepers tell us when we buy something, “Enjoy”. We must be happy. If we feel sad, we must disguise it. It is shameful. One reason for the epidemic of suicides among the young is an imperative to be joyful which they cannot sustain.
The first witness to the Good News is therefore our joy, even before people understand why we are joyful. But this is not the forced jollity of those who insist we must be happy because Jesus loves us. It is the festivity of Jesus, his eating and drinking and pleasure in people that is his first preaching of the Gospel. When St Francis preached to the fish, it is said that the fish went away happy. Though, as a Dominican, I wonder how one can tell if a fish is happy!
Preaching to people who are angry and disillusioned with the Church begins in listening: “What are you talking about? What is your pain and joy?” We accompany them even when they walk away from the faith. We recline with them, we enjoy their hospitality. But what usually touches people first is our joy – above all, in them.
Timothy Radcliffe, former Master General of the Dominican Order, is an itinerant lecturer, broadcaster, preacher and retreat giver.