A mother sent her two sons to college, and as sometimes happens, she discovered a few years later that they were no longer going to church. To her questions they only answered, “We don’t get anything out of it; it is not important in our lives now.” She prayed and prayed, and one Sunday, without warning, they sat down next to her at Mass. “What made you come back?” she asked later that evening. They told her the story. 

A few weeks before, they had planned to go hiking on a Sunday morning. As they drove along a country road to their hiking path, clouds built up, and they were soon caught in a downpour. Cursing their bad luck, they saw an old man limping along in the rain alongside the road. They offered him a ride, and he said that he was going to church about two miles further on. They took him to a little Catholic church and decided to wait and take him home, since the rain increased and there would be no hiking that day. 

The boys waited in the back of church and heard the reading of the Scriptures and the homily. Tired of standing, they sat through the eucharistic prayer and the breaking of the bread. Something moved them deeply. The only way they could later explain it was: “You know, Mom, it felt so right. Like getting home after a long trip.”

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That story reminded me of St. Luke’s Gospel story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They had once found meaning and joy in following Jesus. Then came the arrest of Jesus and the stormy hours of Good Friday as he was crucified. All their hopes and joy were shattered. It all seemed for nothing. They had their own ideas about who Jesus was and what he should have done for them. The way it turned out was not what they expected. So they left Jesus in an unmarked tomb and returned to their former ways. But as they listened to the man they met on the road and received the bread he broke later at table with them, they understood who he really was and began to see that he offered much more than they had ever expected. 

That Gospel passage has a lot to tell us, just as it did to the two boys who picked up the old man. Sometimes we too feel like people who say, “I believe in God, in Jesus too, but I don’t need the church. Especially now when our church, the Catholic Church, looks so bad in the news. It’s now an embarrassment, added to the fact that it has too many rules that don’t make sense to me, and in today’s world it just doesn’t fit into my schedule.” Yes, the church is a human institution trying to convey a divine message, a message that even Jesus’ disciples did not always understand. But the church is more than just programs and rules. 

We may recall another traveler on another road, the road to Damascus. The Acts of the Apostles says, “Suddenly a light from the sky flashed around Paul. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ he asked. ‘I am Jesus whom you persecute,’ the voice said.” 

We cannot separate Jesus from the church, which is the community of his followers. It would be, as St. Paul says to the Colossians (1:18), like separating the head from the body. The church is the presence of Christ in his people as they worship, celebrate his sacraments and care for each other in his name. It is the home to which we must return from all our journeys to find God. He is as close to us as the person next to you at Sunday Mass. 

“Then they recounted what had happened on the road and how they had come to know him in the breaking of the bread.” The church is, in the words of Vatican II, “The people of God” with all our failings and with all our forgiveness and love. Don’t leave it, especially now, when Jesus needs you to be his body in a world that is wounded.

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.