A few years ago, at a church conference that I was attending, the participants were divided into discussion groups and each group was asked the question: “What is the most important thing that the church needs to be saying to the world today?”
There were a variety of answers, each stressing a different aspect of the gospels: Conservatives tended to stress the importance of challenging the world towards sounder teaching and of pushing it to pay more attention to the issues of family, marriage, and private morality. Liberals tended to put the stress on social justice and the issues of peace and poverty. Both agreed that the world needs to be challenged in the area of consumption and greed.
The issues of challenge that were named are valid and important, but I had a nagging thought that perhaps we, the churches, need to speak something else to the world before we speak these other challenges or certainly concomitant with them. I also had the nagging impression that, albeit for different reasons, both the liberals and the conservatives were deriving a secret glee from the fact that the world wasn’t working very well, that it was paying a heavy price in terms of sadness, despair, and dissipation for not listening to us, the churches.
What, beyond the challenges of truth and justice, should we be speaking to the world? Words of understanding, consolation, comfort. One the major tasks of the churches is to console the world, to comfort its people.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” I heard this echo from Isaiah from a wonderful old priest shortly after I was ordained: Working for a summer in one of our Oblate parishes, I was living in the rectory with an elderly priest, a fine, saintly man. He had been ordained for more than 50 years and had, during all those years, been exemplary, honest, faithful, and generous. He was deeply respected. Now, in his late 70s, legally blind, and semi-retired, he celebrated mass every day, heard occasional confessions, and spent most of the rest of his time praying. I was taken by his goodness.
One evening, sitting with him, I asked him: “Father, if you had your life as a priest to live over again, would you do anything different?” I was expecting him to say no, given his obvious goodness and fidelity. His answer surprised me.
“If I had my priesthood to live over again,” he said, “I would be a gentler with people the next time. I would console more and challenge more carefully. I was one of those people who was taught and who deeply believed that only the full truth can set us free, that we owe it to people to challenge them with the truth, in season and out. I believed that and did it for most of the years of my ministry. And I was a good priest, I lived for others and never once betrayed in any real way my vows and my commitment. But now that I am older, I regret some of what I did. I regret that sometimes I was too hard on people! I meant it well, I was sincere, but I think that sometimes I ended up laying added burdens on people when they were already carrying enough pain. If I were just beginning as a priest, I would be gentler, I would spend my energies more trying to lift pain from people. People are in a lot of pain. They need us, first of all, to help them with that!”
He’s right. What the world needs first of all from us, the churches, is comfort, help in lifting and understanding its complexity, its wounds, its anxieties, its raging restlessness, its temptations, and its infidelities and its sin. Like the prodigal son, the world needs first of all to be surprised by unconditional love. Sometime later, and there will be time for that, it will want hard challenge.
And our comfort must be offered not on the basis of what is best inside of human understanding. The comfort we offer rather must be the product of what we ourselves feel when we come to know for ourselves the ineffable, all-empathic, all-embracing, all-forgiving heart of God.
We will comfort the world, and it will be comforted, when we show it that God sees its heart with the eyes of the heart, that God feels for it more than it feels for itself, that God never feels frightened by the assertions of human freedom, that God always opens another door when we close one, that God is not put off by all the times when we are too weak to do what is best, that God understands our complexity, our weaknesses, our anger, our lusts, our jealousies, and our despair, that God never stops loving us even when we put ourselves in hell, and that God descends into all the hells we create, stands in inside of our muddled, wounded, and guilty hearts and breathes out peace.