A number of weeks ago as some of you might recall, I posted a blog about how startlingly fast time seems to have been passing in 2011 – some of this perception I am sure comes from major occurrences that have taken place since January – youth inspired revolution and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, a major earthquake and related nuclear crisis in Japan and world-wide economic dislocation. Add to that other devastating natural disasters here in the United States – including the destruction wrought by monster tornadoes in the American south-east, and record flooding all along the Mississippi River basin – and it is no wonder that a lot of the talk around the water-cooler recently has been apocalyptic – especially given the publicity around the upcoming “Judgment Day” (Saturday May 21st at 6 p.m. Jerusalem time) that has been predicted on subway signs, bus placards and billboards all across the city. The personal silver lining in all this I suppose is that with all the conflagrations taking place around the globe – social, political, economic and natural – there is no lack of material to blog about!
Of course, not all of the events and happenings in recent months have been tragedies, upheavals and violence. This month began with two occasions that were cause of celebration around the globe: the wedding – on April 29th – of Kate Middleton to William the Prince of Wales at Westminster Abbey in London, and only two days later at the Vatican in Rome the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Both of these occasions – one of the love of a young couple beginning their journey of married life together, the other a recognition of the great love that a Successor of Saint Peter and a man of God had for the people of the whole world – were witnessed by countless millions through television and radio and for a moment united those watching in a beautiful solidarity in celebration of love – personal, universal and Divine.
For we Catholics occasions such as this – a wedding and even more significantly a beatification – are moments of great joy and it is good that we revel in them. In Catholic thinking however, “occasions” are more complicated affairs: neither positive or negative in and of themselves, “occasions” are external circumstances – persons, things or situations – that can lead people to behave in a particular way. Some occasions are those of Grace, where God reaches out to us in a particular way, calling us to deeper level of holiness and righteous living; other occasions may be those of Sin, where – because of the frailty common to all human beings – extrinsic circumstances incite or entice us towards sinful actions.
Besides the two joyful celebrations of love that were mentioned above, there was another occasion – a major event actually – that took place earlier this month that also initiated near instantaneous celebrations when the news of its occurrence spread over the media airwaves late on the day that Pope John Paul II’s Beatification took place, but the celebration attendant to this occasion was not without some controversy. That event was of course the death of Osama bin Laden which occurred during a raid conducted on the compound that he was hiding in in Abbottabad, Pakistan by a force of United States Navy Seals on back on May 1st. In the weeks that have passed since the death of bin Laden – a man responsible for the murder of over three thousand innocent civilians – three whom I knew personally – on September 11th 2001, as well as hundreds of others both before and after that terrible day, there has been much debate across the Catholic blogosphere and social media about the legality and justification of his killing in terms of American law, International law and Catholic social teaching. I think such debate is important and morally healthy: the taking of any life – even one who distorted religion in the service of terror and who is responsible for inflicting so much pain and death so many – is a monumental event and one that can never be made cavalierly. On these debates I not sure how much clarity I can add – I will let those with much deeper knowledge of both the law and Catholic teaching than me debate the merits of the circumstances of bin Laden’s demise. As to authority, it is notable that the Vatican for its part released a statement on the killing of the al-Qaida leader, stating that “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not hatred”, and of course Our Lord himself reminded us in Scripture that those who “live by the sword” hold the means to their own destruction in their own hands – in this regard, bin Laden certainly should have not been surprised by the circumstances of his undoing.
Rather then a definitive answer, what I would like to offer here is an observation: as readers of this blog already know, I have always noticed that – perhaps to confound human hubris – God writes straight on crooked lines. Through His Grace – in often counter-intuitive ways – he makes the impossible possible. As the statement of the Vatican said, perhaps in response to Osama bin Laden’s death, now is the occasion to hope and work for the growth of peace not hatred. Indeed, there are some real reasons to have some hope in this regard: the “Arab Spring” that over the past 6 months has swept the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt (where al Qaida found its intellectual roots) to Yemen (where it today takes refuge), has come to represent a shift from the violence that bin Laden represented to other forms of political engagement. This is a shift worthy support, one that promotes free speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of religion (especially minority religions), and the rule of law. As we supported the integration of Eastern Europe into the community of nations after the collapse of communism in 1989, so to must we assist our brothers and sisters in these nations to assert their God given rights. There is of course a long road left to travel: al Qaida itself is not yet dead, but recent events in the Middle East have buoyed a hope for change that we must not squander.
As far as months go, May has always been among my favorite. This is not only because it is the month of my birth – an “occasion” of great joy to me personally – but also because it is the time of year that we generally emerge from the rainy, cloudy spring weather (although not so much this year) to embrace the coming beauty of summer. The first occasion I usually take note of this transition is on Mothers Day – a worldwide celebration that takes place here in the United States on the second Sunday of May. I have always loved Mother’s Day – not only because I love my Mom (which of course I do) but also because I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for people almost universally to pay our respects to those who perform what I believe to be the most important job in the world. For Catholics of course, May is not only the month that we give homage to our own terrestrial mothers, but it is additionally the month dedicated to our universal mother – Mary of Nazareth: a woman held in the highest regard by not only we Catholic and Christians, but by Muslims the world over as well (in the Koran in fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary is the only woman mentioned by name, and is mentioned more times then She is in the entire New Testament; only Abraham, Moses and Noah are mentioned more times then Mary in the Islamic holy text). It is my belief that there is some real hope in this fact as well. As a younger man who studied political science in college, I remember how mesmerized I was by the changes that we all witnessed in the world in 1989: the collapse – mostly non-violent – of the monolithic force of communism from what was once described as an “evil empire”, much of it with the direct and indirect assistance of Blessed John Paul II. Witnessing those events, I remember how struck I was that much of the changes took place were not through the use of force, but through “people power”, and I remember also how my parents said that as children they used to pray the Rosary for the “conversion of Russia” at the urging of Our Lady when she appeared in Portugal at a place called Fatima – the name of the daughter of the Islamic prophet Muhammad – for six consecutive months in 1917 starting on May 13th. I have never forgotten that what the political scientist I had studied in college held to be impossible in the early 1980s was promised by the Virgin Mary over 70 years earlier if we only prayed and worked hard enough.
It is my prayer this May – this month Mary who is revered by both Christians and Muslims, and Who gave birth to He that is Hope to the world – that through our Blessed Lord’s Mother’s intercession, that May 2011 will mark the occasion that we begin to reverse the countless tragedies of the past decade and embrace a hopeful future – not only for our own nation, but for the entire human family.