Comment Comment and Features

Leading the doubters back home

Benedict XVI celebrates his 88th birthday with his brother Mgr Georg Ratzinger, right, and fellow Bavarians (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

The 10th anniversary of the election of Pope Benedict XVI fell this year in the Easter season, suitable enough for Joseph Ratzinger, who was born on Holy Saturday morning in 1927 and baptised that same day with water blessed at the Easter Vigil.

The exact anniversary – April 19 – was the Third Sunday of Easter this year, the Gospel for which included the conclusion of the account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. That magnificent episode of the first Easter evening sheds light both on Benedict’s pontificate and on the one that succeeded it upon his abdication eight years later.

The disciples were walking away from Jerusalem into the sunset. The early Christians, Benedict taught often, turned towards the east to pray; the rising sun was the symbol of the Risen Son, whose return on the clouds of heaven they awaited. Contrariwise, these disciples were headed west, into the setting sun, towards the darkness of a world in which the messianic prophecies are left unfulfilled. Emmaus is the retreat into profane history from the promise of salvation history.

Jesus begins to re-orient the disciples by explaining to them the truths of salvation history: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures.” That might serve as an apposite summary of the work of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict: to rescue the scriptures from becoming lifeless history, reading them instead for what they teach us about Jesus. The disciples whose “hearts burned” as Jesus explained the scriptures to them are like those millions who have read Benedict’s books or listened to his preaching and discovered afresh the reality of Jesus Christ in their lives.

If we are to follow God, then we have to know Him. Even as a young professor, Ratzinger posed as fundamental for theology the question of how we can know this God. Not even Moses was permitted to see Him face to face. Ratzinger’s simple answer was that Jesus showed us who God is, because only he had seen the face of the Father.

Jesus brings us God, and the scriptures testify to what he reveals of his Father. One might take as the starting point for Ratzinger/Benedict’s entire theological project the conclusion of the soaring prologue to John’s Gospel: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; only the Son, who is in the bosom of the Father; he has made Him known.”

If Benedict exemplified the master teacher who could interpret divine revelation, Pope Francis is a model of the concerned companion who accompanies the seekers in the first place. In perhaps his most important address about his pastoral vision, delivered to the bishops of Brazil on his visit for World Youth Day in Rio, Francis turned to Emmaus.

“It is a fact that nowadays there are many people like the two disciples of Emmaus; not only those looking for answers in the new religious groups that are sprouting up, but also those who already seem godless, both in theory and in practice. Faced with this situation, what are we to do?” the Holy Father asked.

“We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night,” he answered. “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 barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning … Today, we need a Church capable of walking at people’s side, of doing more than simply listening to them; a Church which accompanies them on their journey; a Church able to make sense of the ‘night’ contained in the flight of so many of our brothers and sisters from Jerusalem; a Church which realises that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return.”

The Holy Father’s insight here is fundamental to the new evangelisation: people leave for the reason they may return. The disciples left Jerusalem because their hope in Jesus failed. They returned – running back to Jerusalem – because their hope in Jesus was restored.

Francis said: “I would like all of us to ask ourselves today: ‘Are we still a Church capable of warming hearts? A Church capable of leading people back to Jerusalem? Of bringing them home?’”

Emmaus is a perhaps the most dramatic of the Easter stories. This year, in light of Benedict’s anniversary, and the transition to his successor, it is more relevant still.

Fr Raymond de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of Convivium magazine

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (24/4/15).

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