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Love is not an emotion: It's a decision, an action

Archbishop Wenski's homily at Emmaus 40th anniversary

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily at a Mass marking the 40th anniversary of the Emmaus retreat movement, which was founded in the Archdiocese of Miami. The Mass took place Nov. 3, 2018, at St. Mary Cathedral in Miami.

The Scripture readings today give us in a few short sentences a concise summary, a resume – if you will – of all that is written in the Bible. If we wanted to sum up what the Bible says in just one word that word would be simply: Love – Love God with all your heart, mind and soul; love your neighbor as yourself.

Observant Jews recite this prayer every day, Shema Israel. The Bible is one big “love letter” – for, as Jesus says, he (or she) who loves fulfills all that is written in the Law and the Prophets.

In fact, once St. Augustine – one of the greatest preachers of the Church – told his people: Love – and then do what you want. Of course, St. Augustine also wanted to make sure the people understood want he meant by the word “Love”. For Augustine knew that if people understood “love” correctly then they would want what is right, what is just, what is pleasing to God, what is for the good of one's neighbor.

Of course, that is the problem. Too many people have the word “love” on their lips but they don't have it in their hearts. What would happen if we pick five people from this congregation – and sent them out to take a poll (polls are popular these days)? Say we ask them to interview five other people and ask them what love is for them. I think we would get 25 different answers – everybody would tell us what love is according to their own opinions or ideas.

Jesus teaches us that love is not just a sentiment, an emotion; rather it is a decision, an action. When you love someone, you want to embrace them. Jesus opens his arms on the cross – to embrace all of humanity. From the cross, he teaches us that love is commitment, that love is sacrifice. As nails are driven into his hands, he cries out: Father, forgive them – for they do not know what they do. From the cross, Jesus teaches us that love is forgiveness.

For 40 years, from its beginnings in that humble country parish – St. Louis in Pinecrest, and under the direction of Myrna Gallagher and Father David Russell – Emmaus, a parish-based retreat movement by lay people for lay people, has opened for us the Scriptures, as Jesus did for the Emmaus disciples, setting our hearts on fire. Over the years, thousands of people in hundreds of parishes in scores of countries have met Christ in Word and Sacrament and within the dynamics of the Emmaus weekend have discovered that those who journeyed with them were their brothers and sisters. Emmaus has allowed us to experience that we are loved by God and in turn can love our neighbor as ourselves.

We remember the Gospel story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. We can see perhaps how much those disciples were just like us; or perhaps how much we are just like them. They were slow to believe– and for many of us, our journey to faith was a slow one as well. Like those disciples we too perhaps failed to recognize Jesus; like them, we too were “troubled”and had hearts “full of questions.” But like them, we moved from utter incomprehension to greater comprehension, from despairing disbelief to trusting faith. To have found Jesus– or rather that Jesus has found us– is a great gift, a gift that brings us both peace and joy.

And though Jesus may not appear to us as he did to those disciples along the road to Emmaus, he is as much with us as he was with them, for like them we “recognize him in the breaking of the bread.”

Now, this encounter is never primarily or only “between Jesus and me”. Catholicism is a communal religion – we are saved as members of a family, a community, a body – the Body of Christ. In the life of the Catholic community, in his Word, in his sacraments, in prayer, we meet the Living Lord who continues to give us his peace.

True knowledge is not just about facts, information and data – true knowledge sees the reality of things through the lens of wisdom and understanding. Religious knowledge is a way of seeing reality with the aid of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, his gifts of wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The disciples only came to understand what Jesus was about– and that he had to die and rise again to fulfill the Scriptures–only when he sent them the Holy Spirit.

We all walk together with the Lord in that fellowship of his disciples we call the Catholic Church. As you might have already noticed this Church is a big Church – she is made of many people – different languages, different cultures, different life experiences but we share one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And despite all our diversity and possible differences, we all have one thing in common: We are all sinners saved by the blood of Christ shed for us on Calvary. As I once saw on a bumper sticker, “Christians are not perfect just  forgiven.” Again, if it is true (and it is), every saint has a past; then, it is also true that every sinner has a future – a future of hope in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.

Sometimes, we call ourselves “practicing Catholics”– and that's because this life is our one-time chance to “practice” at being Catholic until we get it right. And, following the Lord, being a good Catholic does require a lot of practice. You don't master a new language until you learn the rules of grammar and practice, practice, practice. You don't become good at a sport or at a trade or profession without lots of practice. And the Christian life is no different. So, don't be discouraged and keep at it. Virtue is only acquired by practice – because what is virtue, but good habits learned, and bad habits unlearned.

In the Alleluia verse, we heard these words from St. John, “Whoever loves me will keep my commandments.” Brothers and sisters, we live in a world of fragile peace and broken promises. Today globalization has made us all neighbors – but, as we survey the political landscape both nationally and internationally with its polarization and divisiveness,while globalization has made us neighbors, it hasn't made us brothers and sisters.

What can make us brothers and sisters is our encounter with Jesus Christ. Along the way to Emmaus he taught us what fraternal charity is.

There is a true story about the famous mayor of New York. You might have heard of him – there's an airport named for him. He would often serve as a judge at the night court, and one night during the depths of the Great Depression, he presided over the court in one of the poorest precincts of the city. A poor old lady was brought before the court charged with stealing a loaf of bread. “Did you steal the bread,” he asked her. She admitted she had but explained that she lived with her daughter and her two grandkids, her son-in-law had deserted the family and they had no money and nothing to eat. The mayor looked at the shopkeeper and asked him, given the circumstances, did he really want to press charges. The shopkeeper said that he felt sorry for her but it's a bad neighborhood and the woman needed to be punished to set an example for everyone. LaGuardia was in a dilemma – the law was the law but to punish this old woman would be a miscarriage of justice. What would you do? The penalty was $10 or 10 days in jail. What did LaGuardia do? He took ten dollars out of his wallet and gave it to a bailiff to pay the fine.

Then he looked out at the crowded courtroom and fined everyone there 50 cents for living in a city in which a grandmother had to steal a loaf of bread to feed her grandchildren. He directed the bailiff to collect the fines and hand the money to the defendant. The total collected came to $47.50 including the 50 cents willingly paid by the shopkeeper.

But closer to home, a few days ago, a friend of mine who works at Camillus House said that podiatry students from Barry were there to treat the homeless. But before they set to work on the tired and bruised feet of those poor people, a group of Emmaus brothers were there, carefully washing the feet of these people.

And during the Emmaus, how many people – some after many, many years – washed the dirt – not from their feet but from their souls – in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. After Jesus stooped to wash away our dirt, we can stoop and wash the feet of those homeless neighbors whom we now, in Christ, can recognize as our brothers and sisters.

The Emmaus weekend – and all that follows with your renewed engagement in your parish and the life of the Church– has enabled you to experience the Joy of the Gospel.

You now know that to be a Christian, to follow Christ in the fellowship that is our Catholic Church, is not a burden but a gift, and to have encountered Jesus Christ along the way is our greatest joy.

Thus, as we celebrate 40 years of the Emmaus movement,and as we express yet again our gratitude to Father Russell and Myrna Gallagher and all those who work tirelessly to bring more brothers and sisters to Emmaus, may we recommit ourselves to witness to the truth of the Gospel. In this world of globalized indifference, a world divided between the right and the left, the poor and the rich, a world of migrant caravans, and a world of broken families and of discarded elderly and inconvenient children who are easily disposed of through abortions, we can bear witness to what a reconciled and a reconciling world can look like if we only heed Jesus' words to love God and neighbor as ourselves.

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