Some years ago, I was driving from my sister’s home in Vancouver, Canada back to Oakland, California. Having stopped for lunch in a small town in northern Oregon, I was about to get back on the freeway when I saw a young man hitchhiking. Thinking that I would enjoy a little company on the way, I stopped to offer him a ride. We chatted for a few minutes and then he asked me what work I do. I related to him that I am a Catholic priest, at which point he became very quiet. In fact, I have frequently found the revelation of my identity to be something of a conversation stopper.
Not wanting the young man to remain uncomfortable, I suggested that this might be the first time he had met a Catholic priest. “Yes,” he murmured. “And I suppose that you might have a certain idea in mind of what priests are like,” I suggested. “It might be that you expect a priest to be morally rigid, judgmental, maybe something of a bigot; perhaps you expect that my hands are sweaty from sexual frustration,” I proposed. “Something like that,” he said. Beginning more and more to enjoy our conversation I offered, “in all fairness, we might trade stereotypes. I would guess that you are, perhaps, 24 years old (it turned out that he was 23) and I imagine that you have some marijuana in your backpack.” He declined to affirm or deny the marijuana, but said instead, “I see what you mean.”
After that our conversation was a little easier. He told me that some of his classmates in University had been Christian, but a little weird. He also confided to me that he could never be Catholic because he would lose his freedom. “You mean”, I offered, “that you would have a rigid, judgmental bigot like myself telling you what you must do with your life.” He laughed, although still a little uneasily, and agreed with me.
“But you have it all wrong!” I told him. “The whole problem is that we are not nearly free enough! For example, my Lord tells me that you are my brother. Had I actually treated you as my brother, upon seeing you by the side of the road I would have screeched to a stop, thrown open my door, run to embrace you, asked if you were hungry, while all the time expressing my delight and joy in the wonderful coincidence of our meeting. And you would have run away screaming, because I suspect that you are not free enough to receive such a greeting. “But,” I reassured him, “you have nothing to worry about because – and it is painful to admit it – I am not free enough to offer such a greeting.” We then had a conversation about what our life might be like if we were completely free in the world to be fully ourselves. I shared with him that Jesus taught us that we need a new spirit, that we would then be as free as the wind and blow wherever we want to. Before we parted, I suggested that he must someday encounter Jesus, the freest person who ever walked our planet.
“Come to me, you who are burdened, and I will give you rest,” our Lord tells us. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart. For my yoke is easy and my burden, light.” What a scandal that so many in our world, especially among the young, the Church is imagined to impose heavy burdens, and not to provide relief from them!
Of course, the secular media tends to depict the Church as a repressive moral system, enshrouded in elaborate and arcane ritual practices. But I am convinced that part of the problem is our own, in that we often tend to start in the wrong place. What do I mean?
We must, of course, challenge and correct the immorality of our culture, eg. the narcissism and hubris of the academy, the hopeless ineptitude and dishonesty of our political leaders. We must apply our philosophical and theological resources for this purpose. But this is not, and could never be, our first obligation. We must teach about Jesus, and how he is encountered in Scripture and in a sacramental life, and in his Church, the people he has called and chosen; but even this is not what first compels us.
We must conform ourselves to Jesus in humility, meekness and charity, exactly as St. Thomas instructs us. In this way we become the children that Jesus has called us to be. And then we must speak in his place, beginning with a promise:
If you are burdened,come to us; Jesus will give you rest. If you are afraid, come to us; Jesus will be with you always. If you are lost or alone, come to us; Jesus will call you by name, and will show you the path that you are to walk, the work that only you can accomplish. If you are downcast or overwhelmed, come to us; Jesus will bestow on you a new spirit. Above all, if you would be fully yourself, fully alive and free in the world, come to us and receive the Spirit of truth, the truth that will set you free!
To preach is to convert by means of the truth. And every conversion begins with a promise proclaimed and received.