“The Road to Emmaus: the Paradigm for Pastoral Ministry to God’s People”
Homily, Mass for Deceased Priests at Holy Cross Mausoleum
November 3, 2023
Readings: Rom 6:3-4.8-9; Ps 23; Lk 24:13-35
It is good and fitting that we gather every year in the month of November in this sacred place to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for our now deceased predecessors in priestly ministry here in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. It is all the more so this year, in the midst, as we are, of the “Eucharistic Revival” project called for by the bishops of our country.
Priests, after all, are those who have been given the sublime and unmerited call to provide the Eucharist for God’s people. We must be careful, though, to understand what this means in the broader context of pastoral ministry. The Church as of late has placed much emphasis on “accompaniment” as the most viable approach to pastoral ministry in our day. It is obviously a key point in the teaching of Pope Francis. And it is good that we are coming to a new and deeper appreciation of what this means in caring for God’s people, but in reality it has always been the correct pastoral approach. It is to be hoped that with much reflection and emphasis in our own time we can come to understand it with greater clarity and give greater attention to ministering in this way. This day and this place, though, calls us to acknowledge and give credit to our predecessors who understood this basic pastoral sensitivity and gave pastoral care to their people in this way as they ministered to them.
The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus which we just heard proclaimed in the gospel is probably the most illustrative example of pastoral accompaniment in the Bible. Jesus gives us the model. Clearly, in interacting with these two disciples, he could have just simply revealed himself and explained everything all at once, but instead he very patiently walks with them (literally as well as figuratively), listens to them, lets them talk it out and share their experiences, their thoughts and emotions, their hopes and disappointments. Even though all along knows he know the end of the story, he does not jump in and interrupt; he allows them to process it before he begins to speak.
Luke actually uses this story as a literary device to serve as bridge: a bridge from the shock of absence (the empty tomb) to the shock of full presence (the appearances to the community). Nowadays we would call this the “law of gradualness” – that is, people most often are not ready for the full truth at first; so, one needs to walk with them, and help them make progress down the path, step-by-step, so they may be well-formed and so prepared to welcome it. St. Paul writes with this in mind in his First Letter to the Corinthians, where he tells the Christians there in Corinth that at first he could not talk to them as “spiritual people,” because they were still “fleshly people,” “infants in Christ”, and so, as he says, he “fed [them] milk, not solid food, because [they] were unable to take it.” It took him some time to move them beyond their, as he puts it, “jealousy and rivalry” and “behaving in an ordinary human way.”
In taking this approach with the two disciples, Jesus allows them to reason it out on their own after he gives them what they need to figure it out for themselves, rather than deliver a didactic-type discourse that explains everything to the last detail. This is another critical lesson for us in pastoral ministry: this is how conversion comes about, by helping seekers to think for themselves with the mind of Christ, and reach that “ah-ha” moment when it all makes sense. There is much more personal ownership of the faith in this way. In this sense, we see how Jesus allows his disciples to tell the story to each other, and in the process they interpret the story. In allowing all of the disciples to share their different experiences of the risen Christ, he allows them to build a narrative that is a community interpretation, but a community interpretation based on the interpretation he already gave them. This in turn builds the community itself, as their interpretation begins to fill out the narrative. So we see here the Church in its inchoate form beginning to take shape, and bear witness to the principle of the development of doctrine under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We see something else taking shape here that will be of essence at the heart of the Church: the journey of the disciples with Jesus to Emmaus is a liturgy. Luke tells us: “… beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” The first part of the journey is a Liturgy of the Word, which actually takes place after a sort of time of gathering, if we can consider that preliminary moment when Jesus allows them to process their experiences to serve this purpose. In “interpret[ing] to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures,” he is giving the Church that basic narrative from which the disciples would build; he is, in essence, giving them an example of how to preach, how to think theologically in order to apprehend more clearly and deeply the truth he had entrusted to them (that is, the deposit of faith), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And then, of course, it ends with the breaking of the bread, a Eucharistic ritual. Then, after this, the disciples have their “ah-ha” experience, they connect the dots and are moved to return to the other disciples in Jerusalem, to share their experience and be in communion with them. Which is another way of saying that the story ends on note of sending forth. So there you have it: gathering, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist, and sending forth. All of this is profoundly instructive for us in our priestly ministry, especially when we consider the emphasis the Second Vatican Council placed on the priest as a minister of word and sacrament – not just sacrament only, but word and sacrament.
Our own Emmaus journey, of course, begins at baptism. St. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Romans, a brief section of which we heard proclaimed in the first reading for Mass today. It’s a reading very familiar to all of you, as it is the standard second reading for the Mass of Christian Burial. It is a helpful reminder to us always to keep the end in mind: to keep always before our eyes the culmination of our baptism which is the life of heaven, and to recognize all the assistance the Lord gives us along the way to help us to get there, to recognize how he is always accompanying us, with the Sacred Scriptures, with the sacraments, with Church teachings, with the wisdom and witness of the saints, with the support of our various faith communities, and so on. This is how our Lord himself repeats to us over and over again that he is the Bread of Life, that he is the shepherd who leads us to verdant pastures where he gives us repose, who is always there with his rod and staff to protect us from evil when we are walking in the dark valley. He will not fail to guide us in right paths and refresh our souls; we just have to remain true to him.
We thank God for the priestly witness of our predecessors buried here (and beyond), who nourished God’s people with the food of His Word and the grace of the sacraments, accompanying them every step of the way. We ask God for the grace to be worthy of this calling ourselves, as we offer this Mass for their eternal repose, asking God to take them from the dark valley of death to the restful waters of His Kingdom of light. Amen.