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Intervention at the Synod : The Word of God and evangelising youth.



The Word of God and evangelising youth

Rector Major’s intervention at the Synod

My intervention refers to n. 53 of the Working Document where it says “the Church maintains that easy access to Sacred Scripture should be provided for all the Christian faithful" (DV 22). This is “a prerequisite for mission today [...] To achieve this, appropriate support must be given [...] to establishing the Biblical movement among the laity..., especially among the young”. In concrete, I want to concentrate on how to bring the Word of God closer to the world of youth.

To answer the question in the Working Document “How do we go from our everyday lives to the Bible text and from the Bible text to our everyday lives”" and “How can we read the Bible with our lives and our lives with the Bible?” (IL 22e) in the evangelisation of youth, I take my cue from the Emmaus story, “an exemplary model of the believer’s encounter with the Incarnate Word (cf. Lk 24:13-35)” (IL 26b).

With the purpose of living the Easter experience, the Emmaus story identifies the finishing line, the goal, which the believer must reach and, at the same time, traces the path, the methodology, by which to get there. The episode, chronicle of a past event, illustrates a path to faith and the community and it describes its stages and content, which are always relevant. Luke’s story offers us a precise itinerary of evangelization where it says who evangelises - Jesus by means of His word - and how to evangelise - walking together.

1. Goal of evangelisation: encounter Christ rediscovering the life and witness of the Church

The story opens with the recounting of two of the disciples of Jesus leaving Jerusalem behind. Disconsolate over how much had happened three days prior, they abandon the community, in which however there are some starting to say that the Lord has been seen alive; the two disciples cannot believe women’s gossip (Lk 24,22-23; Mk 16,11). Only at the end of the journey, when they see Jesus repeat his gesture of breaking and sharing the blessed bread, will they recognise him, only to immediately lose him from sight and go back to the community: the unexpected conclusion of the journey to Emmaus was finding themselves again with the community of the disciples in Jerusalem. The Risen One did not remain with them and they could not stay alone: they returned to the community, where they encounter Christ.

To rediscover the community and to find themselves again in the Church, the place to live the faith in common, is the logical consequence of the personal encounter with the Risen One. Outside the community the Gospel announcement seems like gossip that is not to be believed in (Lk 24,22-23). If the one who is Risen had not made community with them, along the journey and at table, the two disciples would not have come to discover him alive, nor would they have recovered the desire to live together. Let us take good note of this: it does not matter whether the one returning to the community had abandoned it beforehand; it is however decisive that they return as soon as possible, immediately after seeing the Lord. Only the one who recovers the common life, knows that the Risen One was with him and will recover the joy of having felt him near (Lk 24,35.32).

If  “the life of communion with God and our brothers and sisters  is the aim of the proclamation of the Gospel,” then ‘for evangelisation the witness of a life in common is decisive, since it is an experience which anticipates, like a seed, what is to come.’  [1] . If “witness is the only language able to convince young people that ‘God exists and his love can fill a life completely’ (SDB Constitutions 62), evangelisation must take care of, as a strategic option, and “concentrate our attention and enthusiasm” on “the unity of, and in, the Church, which is the evangelical sign that Jesus asks of his disciples sent by him into the world” [2].

One has to have serious doubts therefore about an evangelisation, whatever may be its methods and without questioning its good intentions, which does not start from a life in common, lived with joy by those evangelising, and which does not put to those being evangelised the joy of having encountered Christ in the community. If that were so, it would be an evangelisation that did not spring from the encounter with the Risen One nor can it blossom out into an encounter with him. Those who saw the Risen One and ate with him could not detain him; but they recovered the will to speak of their lived experience, returning to their community. That was not just by chance, it bears out the law of Christian living: the one who knows and proclaims that Jesus is Risen, lives his experience in common: “the encounter with Jesus Christ in faith finds its best environment in the Church[3].

Even if we have to recognise that “young people’s belonging to the Church does not immediately come to maturity” [4], we do need to say that without the faith of the Church, the faith of the evangelisers and that of the young would be very poor. “It would lack an indispensable point of reference for living as believers.” The ultimate objective of the encounter with Christ, its certificate of guarantee, is living the Church-experience, and “so developing their sense of belonging to the Christian community” [5].


2. The methodology: walking together

The reason, probably, why the Emmaus episode is so relevant, lies in its being so contemporary to our spiritual situation. It is easy to identify with these disciples who are going home, before sunset, full of all they have come to know and saddened by it.

Going away from Christ disappointed, the point of departure

It was not so much what had happened in Jerusalem as their deep personal frustration that led to their leaving for Emmaus: the disciples’ despondency sprang from the despair that invaded  them because of how their adventure with Jesus of Nazareth had finished (Lk 24,17-21). They had lived with him and that living together had awakened in them hopes of something better: “a prophet who was powerful in words and deeds before God and all the people”, it seemed “he would be the one who would liberate Israel” (Lk 24,19.21); instead, his death on the cross had buried all their hopes. It was more than logical that they would feel the failure, and feel that they had been deceived. Precisely because at the start they were really taken by him, they felt really let down after all that happened.

It should serve as a warning for us that the reason why the disciples left was the disillusionment they felt, and that the weariness that had built up over three years following Jesus and their bitterness at how things had ended led them to abandon the common life.  Young people today share very few things with these disciples, but perhaps nothing as much as the frustration of their dreams, the fatigue in their faith and the disenchantment in discipleship: it is not worth it, they often think, following Jesus: it is not worth spending their life for someone who is dead, not present.

That is the time to head for Emmaus. On their journey, with their anguish, there is also the opportunity of an encounter with Christ. But they are not to travel alone. The young need a Church which is close to their problems and their worries, which not only shares their journey and their fatigue, but also knows how to talk to them, accepting their uncertainties. How can the Church represent the risen Lord, if it does not appear to be concerned about them and their lives? “Going to meet the young where they are to be found, welcoming them with disinterested concern, listening carefully to their questions and their aspirations are for us fundamental steps they come before any other stage of education to the faith” [6]. This, at least, was the first choice of Jesus on the way to Emmaus.

From knowing many things about Jesus to letting him speak, while on the journey

On the journey, the stranger seems to be the only one who has no idea about what happened in Jerusalem (Lk 24,17-24). But knowing so many things about Jesus did not bring the disciples to recognise him; they knew the kerygma but they had not arrived at faith, they knew so much about him but they were not capable of seeing him walking along the road with them; they knew so much about a dead man, but they did not manage to see him alive in front of them. The stranger had to really make an effort to lead them to see what had happened in God’s light, according to the Scriptures: in that way, contemplating God in the story of Jesus, they discovered God’s plan and everything was plain: the death of the Master was neither a misfortune nor a tragedy, but part of a divine programme of salvation.

Like Christ, his Church must renounce nourishing tenuous hopes and false expectations in young people, and teach them to put up with what happens in and around them, helping them to re-read events in the light of the Word of God: illusions, false hopes, even in following Christ, have no future. If we wish our learning about Christ to become God’s gospel for young people, if we desire that all that happens be an encounter with him, we must give the Word of God back its role as sovereign guide of their existence. As long as we do not bring them to see daily living in God’s plan, as long as they do not hear his voice in the words/events that are going on around them, as long as they do not identify his hand in ours as we are helping them, our knowledge will not lead them to know Christ. This is the knowledge that we must absolutely not neglect.

If we do not speak with them, and bring them to the conviction that all that happens is part of a great, marvellous, divine project, the fruit and proof of a colossal love, how will young people manage to feel loved by God? To succeed, we need to become their companions in the search for the meaning of life and in the search for God [7]. There we have a way, still little taken in the Church, urgently needed for young people: For ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. [8].

Welcome Jesus into your own house, the decisive stage

Arriving at Emmaus, the disciples still had not come to the personal knowledge of Jesus, they had not identified the Risen One in the stranger who accompanied them. In reality, Emmaus was not the goal of their journey, but a decisive stage of it. Invited to stay, and still unrecognised, Jesus repeats his gesture without saying anything: a guest in another’s house, the guest does not hesitate to become the generous host; and as head of the household blesses and distributes the bread. Eucharistic practice is among those who already believe the password for his real presence.

The Emmaus two did not recognise the Lord as they walked the road with him and from him learnt to understand the meaning of what had happened: the mere explanation of the Scriptures did not open their eyes, it only warmed their hearts (cf. Lk 24,32); walking with Jesus and hearing his voice was not sufficient. What Jesus was unable to do in accompanying them, conversing with them, interpreting the Word of God, he accomplished with the Eucharistic gesture: eyes to contemplate the Risen One are opened where he, even when not fully recognised, repeats the gesture that best identifies him (Lk 24,30-31).


The Emmaus story can be a model of the spiritual biography of our young people: today we have no other direct access to the Lord Jesus than that offered to us by the community gathered in his name to bless the bread and share it; only the Eucharistic memory can give our hearts, not only joy and fervour, but eyes to see the Lord and the desire to recognise him.

Reading Scripture, even if it leads us to discover God’s plan in daily life and warms our heart, if it does not lead to the encounter with Christ in the community gathered around the Eucharistic table serves no purpose. It does not matter if we are tired or disappointed, like the two disciples of Emmaus; when we break and share the bread in community, Jesus ceases to be anonymous: “No Christian community, however, is built up unless it has its basis and centre in the celebration of the Eucharist” [9].

An education to the faith which forgets or postpones the sacramental encounter of young people with Christ, is not a secure, efficient way to find Him. The Mass is and ought to remain, “the source and summit of evangelisation” [10]. The Eucharist is the “source and the summit of Christian life” [11]. It is a false excuse to say that not all young people are sufficiently well prepared to celebrate the meeting with Christ: since meeting him has never been the result of their efforts, not even the fulfilment of their desires, but the grace of Christ, who comes to meet those whom he loves. Were the disciples of Emmaus well prepared to discover the Lord in their unknown travelling companion?

In the adventure of the Emmaus two we find the decisive and successive stages to be gone through to  bring about, in the education of young people to the faith, the Easter experience that accompanies the birth of the life in community and of apostolic witness. “All this we do in imitation of the Lord and following the way of his love on the road to Emmaus. We reproduce his attitudes: we take the first step in approaching the young and we join them; we travel with them along the same road, listening to them, sharing their hopes and anxieties; we patiently explain to them the demanding message of the gospel; and we stay with them  to repeat the gesture of breaking the bread and stir up in them the ardour of faith” [12].

  1. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus presented himself to the disciples and conversing with them. Approaching the Word of God cannot be reduced to reading and understanding the biblical text, but it is the road to meet the Risen Jesus; a reading of the Word that does not become a personal encounter is destined to fail.
  2. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus presented himself to the disciples and accompanying them for the whole journey. To open their understanding and their hearts, Jesus accompanied the disciples for the whole journey, even if this was away from the community, and he took an interest in their problems. The evangeliser must adopt Jesus’ method: go with them on the journey and share the life of those being evangelised.
  3. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus presented himself to the disciples listening to their preoccupations and he explained what had happened by referring to the Scriptures which spoke of him. To discover God’s plan in our own life story is the objective of reading Scripture; God’s plan is revealed when we find the meaning of what has happened to us in Christ Jesus.
  4. Recognising Jesus was only possible in the Eucharistic encounter. A reading of the Word that is not a preamble and a prior step to the Eucharistic encounter will not give back the faith, nor lead one back into the community.

Fr Pascual Chávez Villanueva
Rector Major

(Translation by Fr Pat Egan, Salesian College, Celbridge, Co. Kildare. Ireland.)