In the minor seminary I memorized a lot of Latin prayers, songs and bits of poetry. Aside from the few Latin prayers and chants which I continue to use occasionally, I have managed to forget almost everything stored in the Latin file of my memory banks. One of the few exceptions is a line from Vergil’s Aeneid: “forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.” In case it is not stored in your Latin file, it translates roughly as “perhaps one day we will recall even these things with a smile.” It is not a bad phrase for an alumni reunion. What is it that we smile about when we gather many years after our shared educational experience? We certainly love to recount stories of the eccentricities of those who taught and formed us. One of the most famous eccentrics of the United States Province of the Sulpicians is remembered above all for his lament that all the eccentrics were gone. We usually enjoy calling to mind the quirks, the gaffes, and perhaps the youthful idealism that once marked ourselves and our classmates. I hope that the smiles today are not just the smiles that come with survival of shared suffering, but also signs of affection for the people who touched our lives and perhaps even helped make us better people. It’s hope for the latter that makes me bold enough to show up at gatherings of Sulpician alumni. And up to now I have never been disappointed.
But it is a special thing to gather a group of people with a common mission, the task of bringing to people the good news, whether as committed Christians or as ordained ministers. We are celebrating the liturgy with prayers for evangelization. We chose this theme because it is so prominent a contemporary concern for the entire church. I’d like to reflect with you a little bit on this crucial project in light the gospel we just heard. What can we learn from the way Jesus went about it on the road to Emmaus?
First, Jesus takes the initiative and approaches these travelers who have lost all hope. Those who want to help others come to know Jesus should go to meet people where they are in the journey of life. Jesus then invites them to express themselves and he listens attentively and opens the way for them to speak about their distress and loss of hope. The question this poses to those who want to evangelize is: “are we good listeners?” Because that is essential to Jesus’ next step. Now he speaks to them in a challenging way: “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe!” He can do so because he has won their confidence by taking them seriously and by his close attention to what they had to say. Then he goes on to open the Scriptures to them and he helps them realize that they are imposing on the Messiah a preconceived idea of a political leader, although there is so much in the Hebrew scriptures pointing to the reality of his mission, which must pass by the way of suffering. He enlightens their minds, and as they will say later, he warmed their hearts, giving new meaning to the events that had taken place, and thus he restores their hope. In the task of evangelizing we must listen to people’s suffering and despair but we cannot stop there. They need to hear the gospel and the hope promised in the resurrection of Jesus. And they need to hear it in a language that enlightens their minds and warms their hearts. At the next stage it is the travelers who, for the first and only time, take the initiative, inviting Jesus to stay with them. Jesus always leaves people free to accept his word and his person. So he makes as if to go on. But then he accepts their invitation and goes in with them. As soon as he enters the house it is clear that he is now the host. At the end of this long process Jesus takes the bread and blesses it and their eyes are opened. The encounter with Jesus in the Eucharist takes on powerful meaning because they have first met him in their personal experience and then in the word of the gospel. Finally, he vanishes from their sight, but does not abandon them. He is no longer visibly present before them but is now dwelling within them. As the gospel says, he “went in to stay with them,” and stay with them he will. From that moment on, these disciples will live in Jesus by faith. Although he is no longer visible, he remains spiritually present to them, and he pushes them from inside to live no longer turned inward on themselves, but to return to the community, to be once again part of the group of believers and to bear witness.
I’d like to underline two important points in this process: first of all, evangelizing does not mean bringing God to people. God is already with them. Evangelizers are called to help people perceive the presence of God who is always with them. Secondly, this process may take a long time. That is the way it is with the most important questions in life.
Twelve years of serving as superior general of the Sulpicians gave me an opportunity to encounter the world church as I visited seminaries in many parts of the globe. I was always impressed with the great diversity of the challenges facing priests today, and the drastic changes that have touched their lives. In the 1950’s France ordained about 1000 diocesan priests a year and the newly ordained would quickly assume an important role in society. A newly ordained priest in France today is one of less than a hundred, and no one would think he has taken a step up the social ladder. It takes courage to face the isolation and marginalization that often make up the life of the priest there today. In French Canada priests also face the poverty of powerlessness, as a priest from Quebec once put it. A priest in Africa, on the other hand, risks being put on a pedestal because his education is so far beyond what others in his community have. In Colombia, a new priest may soon be assigned alone to a mountain village where he will be confronted by armed conflict between guerrillas and government troops or paramilitary forces. A Japanese priest is a member of a tiny minority which has been closed in on itself by centuries of persecution and still has not found ways to reach out beyond its members in the task of evangelization. A priest in Vietnam is constantly aware that the local communist official responsible for religious affairs can interfere in painful ways with his proclamation of the good news.
If the challenges and questions facing priests today are very different in various parts of the world, the fundamental concerns about priestly formation are still shared across the boundaries of nations and cultures. All of the local churches I have seen still want priests who, as Pope Paul VI said, are more witnesses than masters, men whose lives have been touched by the Lord, men who seek holiness, good human beings who can relate easily and comfortably with others and who are pastorally sensitive, men who are well educated in the Catholic theological tradition and can communicate that tradition in a compelling and convincing fashion. These needs are not less pressing today. And this is the kind of evangelizing priests we are still trying to form.
We have gathered today in the name of Jesus and we have many reasons to give thanks. First, for the wonderful gift that our faith has been to us, then too for what we have received from this community of faith and prayer, and for all those who have helped us find our way in the world and in the church.
As we give thanks, we also pray that the Lord will continue to bless the life and work of this great community. When Father Olier composed a sort of handbook for his new seminary and his confreres in the Society of Saint Sulpice he began by saying that the first and final goal of this institution was vivere summe Deo in Christo Jesu, to live supremely for God in Christ Jesus. He never saw the handbook published but his disciples passed it on and it has marked the formation of every generation of Sulpicians. I am confident that this goal will continue to mark the life of Saint Mary’s Seminary in the generations to come, ad multos annos!
 My reflections on the Emmaus story are based on material in a new book by Father Marcel Dumais, O.M.I. entitled After Emmaus: Biblical Models for the New Evangelization. It is published by Liturgical Press and appeared this year.