In a Church undergoing a time of pain and discouragement, Fr Pius McLaughlin, OFM, reflects on how the encounter on the road to Emmaus can rekindle hope.










A Difficult Time


This is a difficult time for the Catholic Church throughout the world, especially during the past decade. There seems no end to the tide of stories about the sexual abuse crisis and its handling. The effects of all this is being felt by all of us and the question we ask is – when will the next bomb explode? In addition, there seems to be a precipitous drop in vocations which has continued steadily downwards from the late 1960’s. Reeling from all of this is the closure of religious houses and clustering of parishes. The most recent polls also suggest that church attendance is falling, especially among the 15-35 year groups.

How are we responding to these blows?  I suspect that our reactions run the gamut from sadness and depression to anger and resentment. Many are polarized, including the clergy and religious, on a number of issues. Now positions seem to be hardening as we try to figure out the way forward. I do not believe that one could characterize the mood of many meetings of Catholics, whether for Mass or other events, as being joyous and buoyant. There is heaviness in the atmosphere that betrays sadness and resentment

Resentment is not far from the surface of many Catholics. How could this have happened to our Church and to us? Resentment leads to the search for causes, for someone or something to blame. At a recent Conference I attended some reasons and causes were offered, such as: Vatican 11 and no proper implementation, the sexual revolution and permissive society, Homosexual clergy and Bishops. Religious leadership, Bishops and the Vatican had cared more for the reputation of the church than for the safety of children, the repression of emotions and human development in the formation programmes in Seminaries and Novitiates, celibacy as a requirement for ordination., the failure to have women represented in the decision-making councils of the church and their exclusion from ordination. These reasons and many others were offered as an explanation as to what had happened to the church.


Emmaus Story

In this situation, with all these emotions acknowledged to be present among us as a people, I would like to suggest a meditation on the Emmaus story in Luke 24:13-35. The idea behind this is to be found in Anglican Bishop N.T Wright’s book The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (1999) In Luke’s Gospel we read a story of two disciples who were walking away from Jerusalem towards the village of Emmaus on a Sunday morning. Some commentators believe they may have been a couple, Cleophas and his wife. Jesus had been killed and buried on Friday. On Sunday morning the two had heard that some women had found the tomb and witnessed a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive; but the pair had left Jerusalem for Emmaus without any hope.

They believed, as did most of the people of Israel, that the Messiah would come to save God’s people from their status as an occupied and demeaned vassal of Rome and in the process begin the rule of God for the whole world. They and the other disciples had believed that Jesus was this Messiah but then he had been cruelly and shamefully crucified and killed. There was no way that what had happened to Jesus could be put together with his being Messiah. “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” they tell the stranger on the road.

Their hopes had been dashed on Friday. The Romans showed who had the power by killing Jesus in a degrading humiliating way and God had done nothing to this naked display of power. So Jesus could not have been the Messiah. Despair took the place of hope in their hearts. The news about the empty tomb and the words of the angel did not break through the despair. “We had hoped but there is no hope now”

As they walked the road to Emmaus, they must have been wondering what they would do now and may even have wondered whether the whole expectation of a Messiah was a pipe dream. Besides depression and sadness, could they have been filled with resentment as well, resentment that they had been taken in by Jesus, that their hopes had been raised, only to be dashed? Perhaps this explains why they left Jerusalem and their own companions to return to Emmaus. They were abandoning the city where they had been misled so badly, perhaps shaking the dust from their feet. Isn’t that a normal human reaction to having one’s hopes blown away? “I’m not going to get my hopes up again. You won’t see me consorting with fools who believe in fairy tales”


Feeling Our Reality


Do we see ourselves in these people? Can I empathize with them because I, too, had hoped? I suggest that we walk with them in imagination and allow our own feelings in this time of crisis to surface. What are my feelings as I contemplate the situation of the Church? Allow all these feelings to surface. They are our reality now, just as the feelings of the two disciples were their reality then.

After the disciples poured out their despair, their anger, their sadness and their resentment to the stranger, he proceeded to tell them the story of Israel in such a way that the death of Jesus on the Cross made sense – indeed made sense of Israel’s history in the only way possible. Luke does not give us the details of the stranger’s discourse, but we can fill them in without too much difficulty. Throughout Israel’s history, God had intervened to save the people when they were at their lowest ebb, brought to that point by their own sinful folly or that of their leaders. When they had no hope, God once again entered the picture and gave them hope.

Take one example from Israel’s history. The Prophet Ezekiel lived in the time of the Babylonian captivity, when the Israelites were carried off as slaves to Babylon and lived far from the Promised Land. The Prophet is carried by the spirit to a valley filled with dead bones and is asked, “Mortal man, can these bones live?” Of course, they cannot; they are dry and dead but he is told to prophesy over the bones, “and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” God then tells Ezekiel, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.” They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore, prophesy, and say to them, thus says the Lord: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel”


Hearts On Fire


Perhaps the stranger on the road to Emmaus retold such stories to the two disciples, reminding them that their faith is in God and that God can bring the dead to life, can save people even when all seems lost. As the stranger told them the story, a story that included the death by crucifixion of Jesus, their hearts burned within them but apparently they did not pay attention to this until after Jesus broke bread with them at the end of their walk. Why were their hearts burning?

It would seem that the words of the stranger touched something deep within them. They, like all of us, were created by God’s desire, a desire that never fails, that is everlasting, and that knows not death and can never be extinguished. That desire makes us who we are – indeed makes us desirable to God. That desire lives deep inside us, drawing us to union with God and evoking hope in us that no matter what happens, we know we are wanted by God. The trauma of Jesus’ cruel death had overwhelmed that hope for a while, but the words of the stranger on the road stoked the fire of that hope again.

When they reached Emmaus, the two did not want to let the stranger go and prevailed on him to have a meal with them. In the breaking of the bread they recognised who the stranger was, and then realised that their hearts had been burning as he told them the story. Death had not triumphed; it had no sting. The crucifixion was the paradoxical victory of God. The disciples hurried back to the community in Jerusalem, where they found that their companions had good news to match theirs – they too had “hoped” and now radiated hope and joy.

In this time of trial and the crash of hope, their story can be good news for us too but we need to let it touch us where we are, in our sadness, our anger and resentment. Remember hope should always be ahead of you, never behind you. Let us then, invite the stranger, who is no stranger, to tell us the story that will set our hearts burning again.