Late last week over in Vatican City, our recently minted Holy Father – Pope Francis – commenting on the occasion of the “World Environmental Day” sponsored by the United Nations, spoke to the crowd outside his balcony in Saint Peter’s Square urging them to take some personal responsibility for care of the environment , commenting that “nurturing and cherishing creation is a command that God gives not only at the beginning of history (in the story of creation in the book of Genesis) but to each of us…it is part of his plan; it means causing the world to grow responsibly, transforming it so that it may be a garden, a habitable place for everyone.”
I reflect on these wise words of our Holy Father regarding the upkeep of a good garden as I sit here in my Office while the remnants of the first tropical storm of the 2013 hurricane season quickly approaches a city that in many ways is still struggling to recover from some of the devastation wrought by one of the final storms of last year. Of all of the many lessons that Sandy has taught those of us living in the metropolitan area, one of the greatest is just how dangerous an over-abundance of water can be, even to the most modern of cities. Many folks who live outside the city sometimes fail to realize that most of the City of New York is actually composed of a series of islands (in fact – the beautiful Bronx is the only area physically connected to the mainland United States). I think that living in places surrounded by water which, at the time, seemed to always stay within the concrete, wood and steel covered banks that contained it, inured many New Yorkers to the inherent power and danger of both storms and the sea: disastrous floods were something that happened to other people, in other places, far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Mother Nature… New York was too big –too modern – to have such worries. Hurricane Sandy changed all of that thinking, if not permanently, certainly for the lifetimes of those of us who lived through her most unwelcome visit to our otherwise welcoming city, and I assure you: I am not the only person in these parts who take the bleating “severe weather alerts” on my smartphone which now precede the approach of any major storm just that much more seriously.
The natural world can be a very fickle place, and just as it is often said that one man’s trash is another’s treasure, a natural element like water, for example, that in one place in overabundance can be a pestilence, can – in another circumstance- be as precious as gemstones. In a few days time, I will be traveling down to Tucson, Arizona for a work conference focused upon Catholic Teaching and migration. In making this journey from here in the Archdiocese of New York down to our sister Diocese on the Mexican border, I will be traveling down from an area in which many victims of storm and sea are still struggling seven months later to rebuild their lives, to a hotter and drier place being impacted by a drought so severe it covers over half of the continental United States (much of it exacerbated by growing agricultural, industrial and urban demands in those water stressed areas.)
Too much or too little – feast or famine –water, heat, storms, sea level…. it seems that in almost no place in our time of extremes do we ever anymore hear of anyplace where weather and living conditions are – in the comforting words of the fairy tale read to us as children – “…just right.”…. and perhaps in all this there is a lesson.
As some of you readers will be aware, this blog post has been a long time in coming; the reason I know that some of you are aware of this is because several of you have been kind enough to contact me and let me know that you appreciate reading some of my musings on here, as well as very appropriately chiding me that, to use your own words, “February 7th“– the date of my last posting – “seems like a longgg time” to be silent….and certainly you are correct in this observation. It’s not that things have been quiet either here or around the globe over the past quarter of a year, and certainly not for me personally or professionally. In the past three months I have – in no particular order – become an uncle for the second time, celebrated my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, led delegations to Washington and Albany in support of the dignity of the human person, and had yet another of my increasingly significant number of birthdays. Just as certainly, in Church circles, things have not been “business as usual” either, as Pope Benedict XVI’s s once in a millennium resignation, and Pope Francis’s now three month reign of successive “Papal firsts”, easily demonstrate. No, in all of this time there has been such a succession of items worth comment on that my lack of commentary on any requires not just an apology, but also an explanation.
You see, despite being inundated with waves of information, of activity, of responsibility and experiences, inside – where the words come from – I was feeling at many times not deluge, but drought. The reasons for this are many, but I think a significant magnifier of this parched feeling for me came from a reluctant recognition on my part of the intransigence of wickedness in our world. It was caused by no particular event I can point a finger at but instead was cumulative, born of the litany of any of the recent affronts to human decency and dignity, be it the grisly horrors that Dr. Kermit Gosnell - and those like him – visit upon vulnerable women and their unborn children in a houses of horror euphemistically advertized as places of healing, to our increasingly sclerotic government’s failure to enact legislation which could help to keep personal “weapons of mass destruction” out of the hands of those who would wreak havoc on the lives of the innocent in the now 6 month aftermath of Sandy Hook, to the return to these shores of the fundamentalist terror that plagues to many places in this world, blasphemously profaning the name of God for whom it has been allegedly committed. All of these – and several more – brought me to a place where for a time I felt a terrible surrender, where the words could not form, where my “glass is half full” worldview felt very, very empty.
Nature as they say abhors a vacuum, and just as the parched earth longs for the rain to restore to life to its hardened and cracked surface, as a Christian I knew that I could not remain in a dry, dead place: Jesus is Risen! He is alive and our well-spring! As Scripture reminds us, He came into the world so that we “might have life and have it more abundantly”. The place that we are called to occupy as Christians is not a life-threatening place of drought, but a life-giving place of hope. It’s not that – like in those stories told to us as children – the world around us, and everyone living within it, are going to all be forever “just right”, and live “happily ever after”. The Gospel is not a fairy tale, and Jesus came not to sugar-coat the world, but to redeem it. What the Resurrection means is not that wickedness and death have ceased to exist; it’s that they cannot – and do not – have the final say: goodness and life and truth win in the end. It is in this belief that Christian hope is born and sustained, and the markers of this hope are made manifest all around us every day if we only take the care to notice. God is always present in our lives; we only have to take a closer look. In the past couple of months while I was in that place where the words would not come, God was there with me, reminding me the whole time that He makes all things new with the birth of my beloved nephew, that He is forever faithful in the Fifty years of marriage that my parents just celebrated, and that He is and remains my friend in the wonderful camaraderie I shared on my birthday with many friends, from many places, who call God by many names.
Liturgically in the Church, we are right now in what is known as “Ordinary Time”, when the Easter Season commemorating Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascensions into heaven is completed. I think that another way to see this period of Sundays leading up to the season of Advent is as a “season of Pentecost” , and extraordinary time when God’s Holy Spirit – promised by Jesus prior to His Ascension and received by the disciples that first Pentecost Sunday – is alive and active in the world, allowing we Christian – and indeed all people of good will – to live in a climate of hope. It is up to us – despite the wickedness that we may still see around us – to recognize this, and – in the words of Our Holy Father Pope Francis that opened up this blog post – to bring water to the parched earth and cause “the world to grow responsibly, transforming it so that it may be a garden, a habitable place for everyone.”
Chat more with you soon when I get back!