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VOICES - Vol. XX No. 2 - Michaelmas 2005
“Joy and hope, grief and anguish”. This is the prescient beginning the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et spes, published almost exactly forty years ago: December 1965.
Those four words joy, hope, grief, anguish touch the very quick of human experience, and the dilemma of confronting conflicting ideas of freedom of what true freedom really means and how man is to exercise his God-given freedom in a world in which the experience of grief and anguish so often seems to extinguish joy and hope.
This year seems to have been characterized by the extremes of both. Our last issue (Easter) went to press only three days after the death of Pope John Paul II, which ended the third-longest reign of any pope in history. The outpouring of grief by millions of mourners who filed past his bier in St. Peter’s basilica and hundreds of millions of others in all parts of the world was unprecedented. The funeral homily preached by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and the beauty of the funeral Mass that reached countless people in St. Peter’s square or on television was a powerful reminder of the “hope that is in us”. It profoundly moved hearts beyond numbering.
Barely ten days later we heard the words: “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum, habemus Papam!” (“I announce to you great joy, we have a pope!”) In our office, there was terrific outburst of jubilation when we heard Cardinal Jorge Medina-Estévez pronounce the name of our new Holy Father Benedict XVI! Joy and hope! Gaudium et spes!
In some ways, it seems that the whole world has been on an emotional roller coaster these past several months and most of us have had our own personal encounters with the extremes of joy and hope, of grief and anguish sometimes even mixed together.
Dwarfing all other events this summer was the catastrophic hurricane Katrina at the end of August, which devastated our cities and communities on the gulf coast New Orleans, Biloxi, and all the towns around them. Nearly everyone in the United States has been affected by this historic event in some way or another. (WFF staffer Gina Caulfield’s family was displaced from their homes in Lafitte, Louisiana, a small town west of New Orleans.) The endless hours of television coverage brought the tragedy into our living rooms.
Our hearts go out in particular to the people most grievously affected by this disaster of nature. We pray especially for those who died and for those who mourn them, for those who were injured, whose homes and jobs and worldly possessions were destroyed, and for all people whose lives are forever changed.
We have witnessed great acts of courage, of charity, and listened to inspiring stories of valiant efforts of people to help. Signs of hope.
But the immediate aftermath of the horrifying tragedy also showed a grim side of human nature. Politically motivated rhetorical sludge suddenly filled the airwaves and print media, just as the polluted floodwaters swamped New Orleans after the levees collapsed.
There is not much good news. Our country is still at war in Iraq, and terrorism remains a serious threat to the world. We face new challenges in the appointment of two justices of the Supreme Court (the results of the confirmation hearings of a new Chief Justice were not known as of this writing.) Questioning of the judicial appointees will continue to focus on abortion, the watershed moral issue of our time. Related to this are smoldering controversies over government funding of embryonic stem cell research, the UN’s promotion of “reproductive health” (i.e., contraception and abortion), and issues of homosexual “rights”. The Catholic Church has not been unaffected by these “culture wars”, and is still suffering acutely from devastating damage caused by pederasty scandals. (The official examination of seminaries to begin soon is part of the response.) The list could go on.
We hardly need reminders that this is a fallen world. We seem headed for a long, hard winter, and the “new springtime” seems impossibly distant. It is tempting to conclude that grief and anguish have triumphed over joy and hope. Like Elijah on Mount Horeb (II Kings 19), after earthquake, wind and fire, we await the “still, small voice” of the Lord to bring salvation. If we listen, we can hear His Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.
This October, the Church will conclude the Year of the Eucharist, begun by Pope John Paul II with his apostolic letter, Mane nobiscum, Domine. The title, “Stay with us, Lord”, quotes the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection (Luke 24). The men were so deep in grief and anguish that they did not recognize their Risen Lord, even though He spoke with them, revealing the meaning of the Scriptures God’s Word. These words rekindled their hope, and they asked Him to stay with them. Later, they “recognized Him in the breaking of the bread”. Pope John Paul II wrote, “Amid our questions and difficulties, and even our bitter disappointments, the divine Wayfarer continues to walk at our side, opening to us the Scriptures and leading us to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God. When we meet Him fully, we will pass from the light of the Word to the light streaming from the Bread of Life, the supreme fulfillment of His promise to ‘be with us always, to the end of the age’”. (cf. Mt 28:20)
And it is this, Christ’s abiding presence with us, that is the source of our joy and hope.
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