Scott Hahn: Jesus says what he means, means what he says

When confronted by life’s crossroads, renowned theologian’s message for us is remember to ‘Turn down Pride and you’ll find Mercy’

THE REAL THING ’He said he was the true manna, the new manna’ — Dr. Hahn referring to Jesus Christ. Stephanie Richer

THE REAL THING ’He said he was the true manna, the new manna’ — Dr. Hahn referring to Jesus Christ. Stephanie Richer

If you are trying to find the road to Emmaus—where two disciples encountered the risen Jesus but only recognized him in the breaking of bread, as told in the Gospel of Luke—then maybe Dr. Scott Hahn provided the crossroads during his presentation Sept. 14 at the Eucharistic Congress.

Dr. Hahn spoke to several thousand people who were packed into the Sevierville Convention Center to hear the noted theologian and author.

Recalling when he visited a friend in a Pittsburgh hospital who had cancer, Dr. Hahn realized that while he knew where the Presbyterian hospital was located, he didn’t know where the Catholic medical center, Mercy Hospital, was located.

When he asked a stranger how to find the hospital,

the man replied, “turn down Pride and you’ll find Mercy.”

That anecdote set the theme for Dr. Hahn’s presentations on how he had to struggle with the his own pride as an ordained Presbyterian minister when his work studying the early Church fathers brought him to the realization that the holy Eucharist was truly the body and blood of Christ on his personal road to Emmaus in becoming a Catholic.

“There’s gold in them thar hills,” Dr. Hahn said, referring to the writings of the fathers such as St. Ignatius of Antioch.

Dr. Hahn spoke of his early career as a minister. After receiving his ordination, he was hired by a congregation who expected him to preach and do Biblical research.

The problem, said Dr. Hahn, came one Saturday night when he began to read Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, since he had been leading his congregation through that Gospel. After reading the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 people with loaves and fishes, Dr. Hahn related the confusion he felt when he encountered Jesus’ words proclaiming himself to be the bread of life that all must eat.

“He said he was the true manna, the new manna,” Dr. Hahn said. “And when he heard the Jews murmuring, he said, ‘Truly, truly I say to you … I was only speaking figuratively.’”

Dr. Hahn laughed along with the audience. “That’s what I expected him to say.” Dr. Hahn recalled his confusion, “I said to myself, ‘That must be a bad translation.” He checked a Greek version of the Gospel only to find that the verb used four times by Jesus—trago—could not have a figurative meaning as it meant, literally, “to gnaw, to munch, to masticate.”

Dr. Hahn recounted how it was around 9 p.m. when he was preparing his sermon, so he thought he would consult the writings of the early Church Fathers, “which proved to be a big mistake,” he said.

“Because by midnight, it was obvious that there was something of an interpretative consensus among the Fathers that Jesus said what he meant, and meant what he said, that he was talking about the Eucharist. The Eucharist! Come on, Fathers, you’re starting to sound like…Catholics!”

“St. Augustine really opened my eyes,” Dr. Hahn said, setting this Gospel against the background of Passover. “Passover was the key—it wasn’t enough to slaughter the lamb and sprinkle the blood, you had to eat the lamb—not was not an option.”

“Back in the Old Testament, if you were there in Egypt for the first Passover, eating the lamb was the climax…if you slaughtered the lamb and sprinkled the blood, and then you took a vote and it was unanimous that none of you liked lamb, the whole family decided to abstain, we’ll make some unleavened bread into the shape of a lamb, we’ll eat that in memory of Moses instead, you would have awakened and the first born would be dead.“

Dr. Hahn recalled he mounted the pulpit the next morning to announce to the congregation…that he was terminating his series on the Gospel of John because he had found “greener pastures” in other parts of the New Testament, knowing that sharing his revelation of the previous night’s study would have gotten him fired.

But the seed of doubt into what he had been taught and believed remained. Dr. Hahn’s studies led him to realize that the New Testament is a sacrifice and the Eucharistic sacrifice is the New Testament, and that the Eucharist was really Jesus. Around this time, he recounted, he was teaching at Dominion Theological Institute in McLean, Va., and was asked by the college president to lunch at a five-star restaurant. Dr. Hahn thought he was going to be fired.

“The secret must be out—I’m a closet Catholic,” he said.

When instead he found he was being offered the position of seminary dean, that began his first step in “turning down pride”—his conscience led him to decline the offer.

For the next two years Dr. Hahn began to read a variety of Catholic

theologians, “most of whom I never heard of, including this guy named

Ratzinger,” he said, laughingly recalling the occasion.

This led him to apply to doctrinal programs. He received a full scholarship to Marquette University, a Jesuit institution. But at home his studies caused conflict between he and his wife, Kimberly, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister who had been, as Dr. Hahn was before, opposed to Catholicism.

When she asked him whether he was on the road to becoming Catholic, he reassured her that any conversion would “take years.”

“If it happened,” he said, “I wanted it to be intellectually respectable. I’m not much, but I’m all I think about.”

In the summer of 1985, the Hahns relocated to Marquette University after Dr. Hahn promised his wife he would not consider conversion until 1990 “at the earliest.”

Shortly after arriving in Milwaukee, he decided to go and observe a Catholic Mass, attending a noon Mass offered in a basement chapel.

“What could be safer?” he said. “Who would come except maybe a couple of old nuns?”

Instead, with his notebook and Bible in hand, he was surprised to see both nuns and “businessmen coming in on their lunch break, young women with children, bag ladies from the side streets and alleys, genuflecting and kneeling with reverence.”

As the Mass progressed, he was astounded to hear what he called a “perfect match with what Justin Martyr described as liturgy in the early church” and recounted a pivotal moment.

“Then when I heard for the first time in my life a Catholic priest pronounce the words of consecration, when he said, ‘This is my body,’ and held up the Host, I felt as if the last drops of my own doubt just drained out of my head and my heart. I was in the back pew and I said, like doubting Thomas, My Lord, my God, that’s you.”

He felt at that moment as if he were one of the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus and came to know Him through the breaking of the bread. The esteem he held in being a “Bible Christian” was gone—he had turned down pride and found mercy.

Within a few weeks he approached his pastor, then Father Fabian Bruskewitz, now the retired bishop of Lincoln, Neb., and “hypothetically” asked him if he would have to go through RCIA to become Catholic. Father Bruskewitz said he could be received at the next Easter Vigil. One of the most difficult aspects, he recalled, was facing his wife, Kimberly, and asking her to release him from the promise he had made to her just a few months before that he would not consider conversion until five years had passed.

As he explained to her, “delaying obedience to what I feel is true feels more like disobedience every day.” She agreed, but not happily.

Dr. Hahn noted a change, though, in Kimberly’s attitude at his reception into the Church. He recalled how she marveled at the beauty of the liturgy and the ancient ritual surrounding the vigil. He fondly remembered her comment at witnessing consecration—“This is unfair.”

When he asked her why, she replied, “For years we’ve been studying the menu, while the Catholics got to enjoy the meal.”

Later, in 1990, Kimberly was received into the Church.

Dr. Hahn explained that a study of the Book of Revelation shows that Jesus continues to offer himself perpetually as a sacrifice through the Eucharist.

At a Catholic Mass, he explained, we are not alone, but join “with the angels and saints,” as described in Revelation. He said in one of the first Bible studies he and Kimberly led after she converted, she asked the participants, “Who wants to go to Heaven?” All raised their hands. She then said as Catholics we don’t have to die to go to Heaven, we just have to go to Mass.”

At the end of his talk, Dr. Hahn emphasized that the Eucharist, as the true presence of Christ, was the key to our future as the body of Christ.

In knowing him, as the disciples on the road to Emmaus did, “in the breaking of the Bread, Dr. Hahn said, “we will effect better change in our country, in our hearts and our homes, by entering more effectively into the Mass. It’s not about politics.”