Recently I attended a church synod in my home diocese. About 200 very committed persons had gathered for a week to reflect on what the church should be doing today.
At one stage, the synod animator gave us this question: “What is the most important thing that the church has to give to the world?” A very interesting question.
I was struck by the variety of answers people gave: “The church needs to challenge the world to care more for the poor! The church needs to challenge the world to find deeper meaning! The church needs to challenge the world’s secularism and consumerism! The church needs to challenge the world . . .”
All the suggestions had to do with challenges. Valid as these are, none of them, to my mind, named the most important thing that the church has to give to the world. And what is that?
Consolation. The first task of the church is console the world, to comfort its people. As Isaiah puts it, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).
Thinking about this, I remembered a conversation I had shortly after I was ordained. Working for a summer in one of our larger Oblate city parishes, I was living in the rectory with an elderly priest, a very 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 by everyone who knew him. Now, in his late 70s, legally blind and semi-retired, he said a Mass every day, heard some occasional confessions and spent most of the rest of his time praying.
I was taken by his goodness. One evening, sitting in the recreation room with him, I asked him this question: “Leo, if you had your life as a priest to live over again, would you do anything different?” I was expecting him to say no, that given his obvious goodness and fidelity, he had no regrets. His answer surprised me.
“If I had my priesthood to live over again,” he said, “I would be a lot gentler with people the next time. I would console more and challenge less. You see, 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 those years for others and never once betrayed in any real way my vows and my commit ments. But now that I am older, I regret a lot of what I did. I was too hard on people! I meant it well, I was sincere, but I think too often I ended up laying more burdens on them when they were already carrying enough pain!
“If I were just beginning as a priest, I would be a lot softer, I would spend my energies more trying to lift pain from people. People hurt enough. They need us, first of all, to help them with that!”
He is right. What the world needs first of all, and most of all, from us, the church, is comfort, help in lifting and understanding its pain, its wounds, its anxieties, its raging restlessness, its temptations, and its infidelities and its sin.
Like the prodigal son, it needs first of all to be surprised by unconditional love. Sometime later, and there will be time for that, it will want some challenge.
And our comfort must be offered not on the basis of human optimism, human forgiveness and human potential, which, in some respects, the world already understands more deeply than we do.
No. The comfort that we offer is that which we ourselves will first feel when we begin to realize how deep, wide, all-embracing and all forgiving is the 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 or wronged by the assertions of its freedom, that God always opens another door when we close one, that God is not put off by all the times we turn our back on what we know is best, that God empathizes with our lusts, our greed, our anger, our jealousies, our failures and with our every despair, that God never stops loving us for a moment even when we put ourselves in hell, and that God descends into all the hells we create, stands in the middle of our huddled, shivering, timid, wounded, and guilty hearts and breathes out peace.
We will comfort the world when we tell it that, in spite of everything, its life is good. The world will finally be helped by us when we trust God enough to have the courage to tell it to live, even to risk mistakes, because, in the end, all will be well and all will be well and every manner of being will be well.