Monday, April 21, 2008

The Gift of Hope

There are three forces that strive in ceaseless and determined effort against the power of good in this earthly life of ours. Sometimes this deadly trio works together, combining their efforts in a cacophonous concert aimed at the destruction of the human soul; sometimes they act alone, the quiet whispers of infamy that tempt ordinary men and women to become the agents of their own eternal destruction.

They are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Everywhere we look we can see evidence of their activities. The glittering palaces of materialism that tempt us to spend and shop our way into meaning; the lewd and ugly becoming banal by its common presence everywhere from Hollywood to the checkout line at the grocery store; the headlines in the paper that make us shake our heads in sorrow, when we read about death and mayhem and destruction committed by people spoken of as "always quiet" and "a nice person" and "we never thought he'd be capable of this."

We see the influences of this unholy trinity in the world around us, in strangers, in friends, in family, and even in our own lives. We think of the call to holiness, and how often these three jeering voices seem to overcome the quieter impulse to good, and we are tempted sometimes to despair.

But as one elderly gentleman, journeying among us this week clad in the bright mantle of the Servant of the Servants of God, reminded us this week, we are not doomed to desperation; we are promised hope.

The world, in all its worldliness, puts a whole lot of stock in Washington, D.C. The political movers and shakers turn to Washington quite a bit; the minutiae of the pre-election season drones on, wearying and trivial. The world likes to listen to the United Nations, too, and to nod solemnly at its pronouncements whether these deserve them or not.

And to the world, Pope Benedict said the following things:

Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility...Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth and bring the wisdom born of firm moral principle to decisions affecting the life and future of the nation.

The founding of the United Nations, as we know, coincided with the profound upheavals that humanity experienced when reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations. When faced with new and insistent challenges, it is a mistake to fall back on a pragmatic approach, limited to determining “common ground”, minimal in content and weak in its effect.

The temptations of the flesh have caused upheaval in the Church which has led to many being scandalized to the point of abandoning our ancient faith. But we live in a time, as our Holy Father pointed out, when the temptations of the flesh in and of themselves are not seen as something to be avoided; instead, they're often shrugged at, as something that ought to be celebrated. To the voices of the flesh, Pope Benedict XVI said:

The family is also the primary place for evangelization, for passing on the faith, for helping young people to appreciate the importance of religious practice and Sunday observance. How can we not be dismayed as we observe the sharp decline of the family as a basic element of Church and society? Divorce and infidelity have increased, and many young men and women are choosing to postpone marriage or to forego it altogether. To some young Catholics, the sacramental bond of marriage seems scarcely distinguishable from a civil bond, or even a purely informal and open-ended arrangement to live with another person. Hence we have an alarming decrease in the number of Catholic marriages in the United States together with an increase in cohabitation, in which the Christ-like mutual self-giving of spouses, sealed by a public promise to live out the demands of an indissoluble lifelong commitment, is simply absent. In such circumstances, children are denied the secure environment that they need in order truly to flourish as human beings, and society is denied the stable building blocks which it requires if the cohesion and moral focus of the community are to be maintained.(...)

Among the countersigns to the Gospel of life found in America and elsewhere is one that causes deep shame: the sexual abuse of minors. Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior. As you strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs, you may be assured of the prayerful support of God’s people throughout the world. Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged.(...)

If they are to achieve their full purpose, however, the policies and programs you have adopted need to be placed in a wider context. Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. They have a right to be educated in authentic moral values rooted in the dignity of the human person. This brings us back to our consideration of the centrality of the family and the need to promote the Gospel of life. What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today? We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike.

The devil has clearly been involved in some of the evil of the Scandal. The devil also left a hole in lower Manhattan, and it was there that Pope Benedict did not speak, but only prayed. He provided the illumination of a candle and the cleansing ablution of holy water, and these words:

O God of love, compassion, and healing,
look on us, people of many different faiths and traditions,
who gather today at this site,
the scene of incredible violence and pain.

We ask you in your goodness
to give eternal light and peace
to all who died here—
the heroic first-responders:
our fire fighters, police officers,
emergency service workers, and Port Authority personnel,
along with all the innocent men and women
who were victims of this tragedy
simply because their work or service
brought them here on September 11, 2001.

We ask you, in your compassion
to bring healing to those
who, because of their presence here that day,
suffer from injuries and illness.
Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families
and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy.
Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.

We are mindful as well
of those who suffered death, injury, and loss
on the same day at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Our hearts are one with theirs
as our prayer embraces their pain and suffering.

God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world:
peace in the hearts of all men and women
and peace among the nations of the earth.
Turn to your way of love
those whose hearts and minds
are consumed with hatred.

God of understanding,
overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy,
we seek your light and guidance
as we confront such terrible events.
Grant that those whose lives were spared
may live so that the lives lost here
may not have been lost in vain.
Comfort and console us,
strengthen us in hope,
and give us the wisdom and courage
to work tirelessly for a world
where true peace and love reign
among nations and in the hearts of all.

Piercing through the clamor of the world, and the flesh, and the devil comes the quiet voice of the Vicar of Christ, speaking his message of hope for our world. God has blessed us at this moment in history with a pope who brings this gift, the gift of hope, to a people so spiritually impoverished that many have forgotten that they ever needed this gift in the first place--at least, until those forces of evil combine to strip all their usual comforts from them, and cause them to confront a starker and grimmer reality: Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.

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