Making hearts burn: Francis and the need for Emmaus Church

Needless to say, that interview with Pope Francis has been the equivalent of an ecclesial tsunami.  The core of the interview – seemingly lost in both secular commentary and conservative criticism – is Francis again referring to Emmaus.  When speaking to the South American Roman Catholic episcopate in July, Francis held up Emmaus as an icon for the contemporary Church, asking “are we still a Church capable of warming hearts?”  In the interview he again returns to this theme, on the need for the Church whose message “makes the heart burn” rather than imposing “a disjointed multitude of doctrines”.

It is, of course, too early to say what might lie at the heart of this pontificate, but the icon of Emmaus does seem to loom large.  Francis is asking us, ‘how can we be Church on the road to Emmaus?’

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. Proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus. We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel. The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow. 

I say this also thinking about the preaching and content of our preaching. A beautiful homily, a genuine sermon must begin with the first proclamation, with the proclamation of salvation. There is nothing more solid, deep and sure than this proclamation. Then you have to do catechesis. Then you can draw even a moral consequence. But the proclamation of the saving love of God comes before moral and religious imperatives. Today sometimes it seems that the opposite order is prevailing. The homily is the touchstone to measure the pastor’s proximity and ability to meet his people, because those who preach must recognize the heart of their community and must be able to see where the desire for God is lively and ardent. The message of the Gospel, therefore, is not to be reduced to some aspects that, although relevant, on their own do not show the heart of the message of Jesus Christ.

Just prior to this section of the interview, Francis provides a lived example of those whom Emmaus Church will seek to walk with, to minister forgiveness and healing:

I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and she is now happy and has five children. That abortion in her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it.

It is difficult not to think of a question posed by Rowan Williams in a not dissimilar context, regarding individual journeys and the Church’s proclamation – what is the good news for this person? (Williams asked the question regarding the gay Christian in response to the St Andrew’s Day Statement.)  Francis’ answer proclaims the abundant grace of the Triune God, embracing the prodigal, leading from death to life, making Cross to be Resurrection:

God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else—God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.

It is a message to make hearts burn, a living encounter with the Crucified and Risen One.  Such is the message and the hope of Emmaus Church – and an appropriate theme to reflect upon on the eve of the feast of Matthew, tax collector and sinner, apostle, evangelist and martyr.