The Gospel at Mass today is about Christ’s journey on the road to Emmaus with his two disciples. There many things about this Gospel that I love, but I would like to dwell on one particular aspect of the story: the recognition of Christ in the breaking of the bread and the road itself.
When the disciples and Our Lord sit down to eat dinner at Emmaus, the disciples still believe that they have been eating with a fellow traveler. Albeit the disciples are a little dumbfounded by the man’s ignorance. In their hearts, they were probably still wondering how this particular man could have been at Jerusalem and not heard about the sufferings of Our Lord. The news was all over town and yet this stranger had apparently heard none of it.
Yet as the disciples sat down with this stranger to eat, they saw Him raise His hands to bless the bread. In that instant, there was recognition. It really was Our Lord who had been with them on the road to Emmaus. It was with Him that they had conversed. As one of them said to the other, “Did not our hearts burn while we spoke with Him?” With this moment of recognition, however, Our Lord disappeared. The Good News of the Resurrection had come to yet another group of disciples.
In our own lives, we replicate that story countless times. There are those moments when we are walking down the road of life seemingly ignorant of God and His mercies. We start talking to a stranger about religion and Christ reveals Himself. It is Him that we see in the stranger that we are speaking with. It is also His love that emanates from that person. Indeed, our hearts burn while we converse because we can feel His presence is near us.
Many years ago, I used to visit a Jesuit priest twice a week. He was in his late eighties, suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and had had several brain surgeries. When I first met him, I thought that I would be meeting Fr. O’Malley from “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” or the chaplain from “Sister Act.” The man that stood before me was neither of these men. Rather, he was an open wound. Yet he was who I had been partnered with.
At that particular time in my life, I wasn’t really interested in Catholicism. I cannot say that I didn’t care for it, but I wasn’t considering converting. I was still smarting from all the humiliations and bullying that I had endured in high school. I believed that the Orthodox faith was the true religion. I still believed somewhere in my own heart that Catholics were arrogant and bloodthirsty ogres as they had been portrayed in the movies. Either that or they were like the nuns and priests I had met in high school: aloof and removed from the realities of the world.
Meeting with that particular priest changed my perspective completely. Here I was talking to a man who was very much like myself. He had been born to Irish immigrant parents and had been raised in a small farming town by an uncle after his parents died from the Spanish flu. He had gone to college to study sociology and had heard the call by accident on a staircase. He had been a professor and a missionary among the Native Americans. He had seen and tasted more of life than I ever could hope to accomplish at that age.
During our conversations, we talked about a great deal of nonsense. Yet we also talked about things that were of importance to us. I once asked him whether he wanted the Latin Mass to return. He told me that it was up to the Holy Father to make that decision and that it wasn’t his. As we talked more and more about this issue, however, I came to realize that Father certainly had some nostalgia for the old days. Maybe it wasn’t for the long cassocks and birettas, but there was something there. Something that I never managed to ask him about and yet it was so tangible that I cannot describe it.
I remember how excited I always was to meet him and talk to him. He always met me at the door with a smile and ushered me into a room. We would sit there for hours and talk. He would ask me about academic life and I would ask him about the full life that he had led, the people he had met, the places he had gone.
I once asked him whether he had ever been to the Vatican or if he had ever wanted to go to Italy. “What do I need to go there for?” he retorted. “You don’t have to go to Rome to be a Catholic!”
Our meetings only lasted several months, but those meetings changed my views of Catholics. I no longer viewed them as ogres or being silent and aloof. I saw them as people that were trying to live their faith. They did with all their heart and soul. Yet they also possessed something that I could never find in the Orthodox faith of my childhood and adolescence. Call it what you will, but I would call it peace. The peace of knowing that you are doing God’s will and the happiness that comes with that knowledge.
Although Father passed away many years ago, my heart still burns when I think of him. I wonder about the countless lives that he touched during his ministry and whether they could feel what I felt. Whether they looked beyond the bald head covered with sores and the wandering blue eyes to see a soul that was on fire with the love of Christ and was willing to spend itself in His service.
In my road to Emmaus, Father was always there whether in prayer or in actual fact. Although I did not correspond with him or call him after I went to college somewhere else for my undergraduate studies, his memory is always with me. Sometimes, I can still hear his voice or see his crooked smile. Even when I don’t see or hear it, I can still feel my heart burn when I talk about him. Such is the love of the Christ that burned in his heart and it is the same one that burns in ours.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!