Bringing Back Those Who Have Left The Church

Two weeks ago when I was preparing my column for the most recent bulletin, I wrote, “I suspect we will be hearing more about this.” But we didn’t.

What was it? I revealed the topic about which Pope Francis was speaking on the flight from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. The secular media tore from its context the answer the Holy Father gave to a question about a specific priest working in Vatican City, twisting it so that it seemed to reveal a rather indifferent attitude on the part of the Pope toward homosexual activity.

In the weeks that have passed I have seen no retraction in the newspapers, no correction. Nor have I received any comments about what I wrote in the bulletin.


In that same August 4 bulletin I also reprinted some of Pope Francis’s address to the bishops of Brazil in the home of the Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro. The entire address is available on the Vatican website here.  In it, the Holy Father refers to the story of the disciples who, after Jesus’ Crucifixion, are so dejected that they leave Jerusalem. On the road to Emmaus they encounter the Risen Lord.

 The Holy Father compares people who leave the Church to those two disciples who left Jerusalem for Emmaus. He supposes those in our present day have concluded that the Church no longer has anything meaningful to offer them. Pope Francis goes on:

And since there is no one to accompany them or to show them with his or her own life the true way, many have sought shortcuts, because the standards set by Mother Church seem to be asking too much. There are also those who recognize the ideal of man and of life as proposed by the Church, but they do not have the audacity to embrace it. They think that this ideal is too lofty for them, that it is beyond their abilities, and that the goal the Church sets is unattainable. Nonetheless they cannot live without having at least something, even a poor imitation of what seems too grand and distant. With disappointed hearts, they then go off in search of something which will lead them even further astray, or which brings them to a partial belonging that, ultimately, does not fulfill their lives. …

 From this point of view, 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 realizes that the reasons why people leave also contain reasons why they can eventually return. But we need to know how to interpret, with courage, the larger picture. Jesus warmed the hearts of the disciples of Emmaus.

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? Jerusalem is where our roots are: Scripture, catechesis, sacraments, community, friendship with the Lord, Mary and the apostles… Are we still able to speak of these roots in a way that will revive a sense of wonder at their beauty?

Many people have left because they were promised something more lofty, more powerful, and faster.

But what is more lofty than the love revealed in Jerusalem? Nothing is more lofty than the abasement of the Cross, since there we truly approach the height of love! Are we still capable of demonstrating this truth to those who think that the apex of life is to be found elsewhere?

Do we know anything more powerful than the strength hidden within the weakness of love, goodness, truth and beauty?

People today are attracted by things that are faster and faster: rapid Internet connections, speedy cars and planes, instant relationships. But at the same time we see a desperate need for calmness, I would even say slowness. Is the Church still able to move slowly: to take the time to listen, to have the patience to mend and reassemble? Or is the Church herself caught up in the frantic pursuit of efficiency? Dear brothers, let us recover the calm to be able to walk at the same pace as our pilgrims, keeping alongside them, remaining close to them, enabling them to speak of the disappointments present in their hearts and to let us address them. They want to forget Jerusalem, where they have their sources, but eventually they will experience thirst. We need a Church capable of accompanying them on the road back to Jerusalem! A Church capable of helping them to rediscover the glorious and joyful things that are spoken of Jerusalem, and to understand that she is my Mother, our Mother, and that we are not orphans! We were born in her. Where is our Jerusalem, where were we born? In Baptism, in the first encounter of love, in our calling, in vocation. We need a Church that kindles hearts and warms them.

We need a Church capable of restoring citizenship to her many children who are journeying, as it were, in an exodus.

The Holy Father’s words are thrilling, and yet cut to the heart. (I would suggest reading them out loud so you can appreciate what he is saying; I’m sure you will agree with every word.) Many, many people have left the Church for the reasons described by Pope Francis. We can be part of bringing them back by walking with them and listening to them. We cannot be afraid of listening to the difficulties people have with the teachings of our Church. We can help them to rediscover her riches, and to use those gifts to grow closer to Christ.

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