God, where are you in our suffering?

How can we believe in an all-loving and all-powerful God when there is so much suffering around us?

This is the most difficult religious question of all time. Why does God not just wipe out all suffering? Why does God seem so silent in the midst of so much pain?

There have been many attempts to answer this question, by some of the best theological minds in history. Those who have suffered deeply too, have also tried articulating an answer to this question. It’s impossible to say much about this in 500 words, but here goes…

First, we need to confront the notion that believing in God or having faith makes us immune to tragedy, suffering, illness and pain. We often want an ‘aspirin’ God and believe that somehow our faith should be rewarded with lives that are easy and suffering-free. God never promised us pain-free lives. God deals with suffering differently to our ‘by-pass pain at all cost’ approach.

Jesus reveals a God who is not a rescuer but a redeemer. God does not protect us from pain, but enters into our pain and ultimately redeems it. This sounds pithy but it is not. What is ultimately at stake is human freedom and God’s respect for our freedom. God gives us freedom and, unlike most people, refuses to violate that freedom even when it might seem best to do so. It’s the price of the gift to the giver. This leaves us in a lot of pain sometimes, because of our own poor judgement or that of others. Respect demands that God does not rescue us in these cases but, rather, God redeems.

Fr. Ronald Rolhesier OMI says that a reading of the story of Lazarus offers some insight. Lazarus dies, Jesus is told but he does not rush to the dead man’s family right away. When he arrives at the house, two days later, he is met by the statement from Lazarus’s sister Martha “If you had been here my brother would not have died”. The statement really is the timeless one everyone wrestles with: “Where were you when tragedy struck?” In other words: Where is God when there is suffering? Mary, the other sister, asks the identical question.

Jesus does not answer. He becomes, we are told “distressed” and asks where Lazarus has been put. We are then told Jesus weeps. That’s God’s answer: he enters into suffering, helplessness and pain. He then raises Jesus from the dead.

The same happens to Jesus. He is not rescued from the cross by the Father. He dies on the cross then the Father raises him to life.

God is not indifferent to suffering. When we are hurt badly, unfairly, painfully, it is difficult to believe in an all-powerful God. Sometimes, however, the only answer to suffering is the one Jesus offers to the Lazarus sisters – shared pain, distress, tears, helplessness. There is no attempt to explain his seeming absence. The challenge is, rather, to be in that very painful space trusting that God is present and, in the end, rest assured that we will be redeemed by God’s embrace.

By Russell Pollitt SJ

Winter Living Theology

This year’s Winter Living Theology, presented by Fr Thomas Weston SJ, was held at Christ the King hall, Pinelands on 19 July 2017. The topic was: Finding God in Addiction: A Pastoral Response to Addiction and Recovery. Below are some pictures of the event.

 

Archbishop’s Homily at the opening Mass of the LCCLSA and SACBC Triennial Meeting

The Gospel of today’s Mass recalls the mission of the proclamation of God’s Kingdom given initially to the Apostles, but in fact to all through baptism, and which unites us in a common cause, “And as you go, proclaim that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”. Evangelization, as we know, is integral to the very meaning of what it means to be Church. In the words of St Paul, “It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken’. Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak” (2 Cor 4:13). Evangelisation is achieved through three constitutive elements identified by Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, namely proclamation of the Gospel and witness to Christ, celebrating the sacraments and humble service (cf. Deus Caritas est, 25a). Together we, in the diversity and richness of many charisms, spread the Good News.

The first Reading of today’s Mass holds many important lessons for this task. We hear part of the story of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and yet became the right hand man of Pharaoh. Through interpreting Pharaoh’s dream he knew that years of abundance would be followed by years of famine. He took the necessary measures to store food and was able to feed the nations. We, as leadership of the Church in Southern Africa, must always have the hope that God will transform what we perceive to be adversity into a blessing. Jospeh was sold into slavery but through that evil a great good was achieved. We may face many hardships, such as a shortage of resources and vocations, but let us never lose sight of God’s plan which brings blessings. Like Joseph, we too must read the signs of the times. There is a type of famine that grips the earth, the famine of those who hunger for and seek truth and meaning. We have the stored resources, the treasures, with which we can nourish others. This we do with the same generosity of Joseph and without holding back. Just as many nations went to Egypt for food, so we gather together different nations, cultures and languages into the unity of the one family of God.

But the task of evangelization is inseparable from our own discipleship. Pope Francis made the point, “When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we proclaim Christ without the cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly. We may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, all of this, but we are not disciples of the Lord”. Discipleship means carrying our own cross and following Christ. Evangelization is not simply the proclamation of the Gospel by going out and heralding the Good News, as important as that is. There is another pathway that must also be followed. In the words of Pope Francis, it is “the inner journey, the path within, the path of the disciple who seeks the Lord every day, through prayer, in meditation.” These are not separate pathways; they are mutually dependent on each other. Prayer, meditation, the celebration of Sacraments are integral to proclamation and give credibility to it, just as proclamation ensures sincerity in prayer and worship. For this reason all our activity must be founded on an ever-deepening encounter with Christ through Word, Sacrament and prayer. The inner-spiritual life is essential for the mission, just as the mission strengthens and feeds our spiritual life.

The urgency expressed by successive Popes for what has been termed the “new evangelization” means that there is also an urgency for the renewal of our faith expressed in prayer and spiritual life. It is accurate, I think, to say that the crisis facing the Church is not fundamentally a crisis of vocations, of lack of trust, or people leaving the Church, or the supposed irrelevance of the Church to young people. It is a crisis of faith, a crisis of where our hearts lie. The crisis of faith is, perhaps, not so much a loss of faith as such, but a faith that is being taken for granted, not nurtured or challenged – a complacency about our spiritual life and our call to discipleship. Liturgy becomes routine, our prayer superficial and the practice of faith in action mundane and without passion. A weariness has set in, a “saltlessness”. It can only be changed by seeking with fresh eyes the message of Christ and a return to the Gospel, where the starting point is a desire to know Christ more deeply with a commitment to obedience, especially to the commandment of love of God and neighbour. The Gospel of Jesus both disturbed and fascinated many, including the commandment to love. We can become so wrapped up in ourselves and content that we do love God and, after all, we wish our neighbour no harm, that we no longer allow the Gospel to disturb us and to put ourselves at risk. The famous quote from Pope Francis recalls us from our comfort: “it is true that going out on to the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out on to the streets and a sick, withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one”.

Jesus, the incarnation of God, shakes us into the realization that we may be the greatest intellectual of all time, a bishop or religious, an ordinary person, but we are not his disciples unless we are able to express the same gentleness, care and compassion to the least of his brothers and sisters. It was in touching the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion that St Thomas recognized the divinity of Christ and made his profound profession of faith “My Lord and my God”. It is in the wounded-ness of those around us that we must see the face of Christ – and respond. Pope Francis has been clear that it is through concrete acts of mercy that we serve God. “If a disciple is not journeying to serve, there’s no reason for the journey. If his life is not for service, there is no point in living the Christian life”. Touching Jesus’ wounds transformed St Thomas, just as those who were touched by Christ were transformed. Our kerygma and our witness is not primarily through words – it is through those concrete and personal actions that acknowledge and affirm the dignity and value of the other.

In the words of Blessed Oscar Romero, The transcendence that the church preaches is not alienation; it is not going to heaven to think about eternal life and forget about the problems on earth. It’s a transcendence from the human heart. It is entering into the reality of a child, of the poor, of those wearing rags, of the sick, of a hovel, of a shack. It is going to share with them. And from the very heart of misery, of this situation, to transcend it, to elevate it, to promote it, and to say to them, ‘You aren’t trash. You aren’t marginalized.’ It is to say exactly the opposite, ‘You are valuable.’” Part of the “crisis of faith” is a weakening of this sense of communion with others, of being in solidarity. It is a loss of the sense of caring for those when trouble strikes. It is a loss of a personal approach – a certain anonymity has set in. The warmth of a loving community has grown chilly.

As many people search for meaning and a sense of purpose, we rely on the tenets of our faith. The words “it is in giving that we receive, in loving that we are loved”, remain as true as ever. It is the understanding that in order to gain life we must lose it; it is through sacrifice and humble service that we find purpose and meaning to life, always remembering that this journey can never be separated from our inner spiritual journey.

For us, as leaders of the Church in Southern Africa it must be our continual recommitment to harness our diversity and the multitude of charisms and, in unity, to strive to achieve the common task of spreading the Gospel, through proclamation and witness, Sacraments and service. It is to return to those things that have always stood Christians throughout the ages in good stead. To shake off the weariness that clings so easily, to abandon the insidious idols that creep in so silently and that distract us and drain us of energy. It is Christ and his Gospel that we serve and no other. Pope Francis points us to the road ahead: “We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace”.

These are the challenges that lie before us, the tasks that we must achieve together, always faithful to our vocation and mission. We gather for this triennial meeting to ensure that we are united, diverse in charism, yet one in our commitment to continue the spread of the Gospel and to proclaim the love and joy of the Good News. May God bless us and guide during our deliberations.

+Stephen Brislin 12 July 2017

Archbishop’s sermon at Opening Mass for Bi-centennial

In today’s Gospel Jesus offers words of consolation and encouragement to his disciples. He says to them: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul: rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs on your head are numbered. Fear not, therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows”.

These words, together with many other passages from the Scriptures, must have been of enormous comfort to our foremothers and forefathers who embarked on the perilous journeys to proclaim the Gospel and to establish the Church in an unknown and untested place. These were men and women of great courage, committed resolve and a sincere love of God and the message entrusted to them by Christ. They were, undoubtedly, saints and sinners, those who did good and those who sinned and made mistakes. A great tragedy of much of history is that we lose the personal stories and anecdotes that give life to historical facts. Today, we remember them all and give thanks to God for them, for without them we would not be here today. Whatever their weaknesses and the mistakes they made, the faith has spread to every corner of the countries of our region, and the faith is alive and growing. The history of the Catholic Church, tainted as it may be with intentional or unintentional collusion with colonialism and apartheid, discrimination and sex abuse cases, has nonetheless, through the strength of Christ, brought life and hope, not only to ourselves but to Southern Africa.

We embark on the bi-centennial celebration of the establishment of the Vicariate of the Cape of Good Hope, the official establishment of the Church, initially in Cape Town, but from this place spreading north, west and east. We have much to be grateful for. The first missionaries who arrived, primarily intent on ministering to Catholic colonialists and soldiers, soon took the Gospel to indigenous peoples, to the oppressed and indigent – the very peripheries that Pope Francis frequently talks of. To establish the Church and spread the faith, also meant to provide education, training and medical care and through much pain, anxiety and self-sacrifice many educational and medical facilities were established that developed and gave hope to millions over the course of these 200 years. In latter years, through circumstances – not least the decrease in vocations to priesthood and consecrated life – many of these facilities have had to close or be given over to government and other bodies. For those who may think of a past “golden age” this might seem as a sign of failure or a crisis in the sense of devastation. As sad as such closures may be, in many respects, it is more a crisis of new opportunities, of change, for we are a people of hope, knowing that Christ is with us until the end of days.

For, as important as such institutions are, and as important as the role they played and continue to play, as much as we need them, the truth is that institutions are both a blessing and a potential danger. They are a source of blessing as they have provided educational and health benefits to so many, they have established dedicated places of worship – they have changed lives for the better, and provided a means for evangelization. But they also demand time, maintenance, management, leading us away from the mission given to us by Jesus at the time of his Ascension, to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:9). They can lull us into a sense of comfort and satisfaction, perhaps even leading us into believing “this is the Church” – that institutions are the end rather than the means, and to devote all our energy to preserve them no matter what.

The biggest danger lies within ourselves if we develop an institutional attitude and begin to treat people in an institutionalized way. A characteristic of our times, most especially in large urban areas, is anonymity. Not only is there the loneliness of urban life that Pope Francis has spoken of frequently, but people are dealt with in a way that makes them feel stripped of personality and dignity. Whether it is automated responses to telephone enquiries, being boxed into a computer profile that prohibits you from, for example, receiving a bank loan or simply the disinterest we so often experience when seeking assistance, people are made to feel as a mere number, one among millions of others, who are obliged to “fit into” the system. The system is paramount, not the person. As the Holy Father has said, “We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power” (EG 52). And yet Christ reminds us that sparrows may be sold two for a penny, but we are more valuable to the extent that every hair on our head is counted. Christ transforms the hearts of people through a personal encounter, by his merciful and generous forgiveness, his tenderness in dealing with the broken, the humble and the poor. As we recall our mission to evangelize it is Christ whom we model ourselves on Christ who treated every person as a person, with humanity and kindness. It is intrinsic to our faith to value human life.

Remembering the past, we turn to the future. To paraphrase what Pope Francis said at the beginning of the Year of Consecrated Life, we look to the past with gratitude, we live the present with passion and we embrace the future with hope. We know that the task to evangelize is urgent and must be embraced with passion. In the words of the Holy Father, “Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers and sisters, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit”. The frontiers have changed – no longer do we need to travel on long and dangerous journeys to other continents and peoples, but we turn to our own brothers and sisters, perhaps tired in the faith, perhaps having abandoned the faith. Our proclamation of faith is not so much as to win converts, as to open hearts to Christ and his salvific message, to transform our society in the image of Christ. And so the new frontiers become the spheres of life that influence and shape our societies, that can either liberate and enhance human life or can limit and de-humanize people. Not only do we witness to Christ in the public square, but we Christianize the spheres of politics, economics, education – the very culture of our society. There is much good in all these spheres, but there is also much that is evil and that destroys. Certainly, the prophetic voice of the Church must be heard loudly as we oppose violence in all its many forms – the violence of blood-shedding, the violence of poverty and the structures that entrench poverty, violence against the environment, the culture of death, of greed and corruption. The prophetic voice is not a voice that seeks popularity from any quarter – it seeks only truth and that which can bring about goodness.

Yet, as much as that voice may be needed, it is insufficient for evangelization and transformation of hearts. The kindness and encouragement of mercy, healing and reconciliation is intrinsic to Christ. Blessed Oscar Romero put it this way: “Let us not tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world. Let us not tire of preaching love. Though we see that waves of violence succeed in drowning the fire of Christian love, love must win out; it is the only thing that can”. As St Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians, it is in “speaking the truth in love” that we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ (Eph 4:15). Pope Francis repeatedly calls the Church to mercy – the very essence of the Gospel – and proclaimed last year the Year of Mercy. It is to the suffering that we must turn – in the words once again of Blessed Oscar Romero, “We must not seek the child Jesus in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs. We must seek him among the undernourished children who have gone to bed at night with nothing to eat, among the poor newsboys who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways”.

But it is not only the physical poverty that calls to us, it is the cry of those in despair, in doubt and confusion, beset with anxiety or lack of purpose, those who are searching and seeking for truth. It is the cry of the lonely, the sick, the mentally challenged. It is the cry of humanity, thirsting for truth and for love.

We cannot treat people anonymously, or in a distant, cold and “institutionalized” manner. We cannot neglect to respond to the cries we hear because those calling are sinners or outcasts. The response we make is not from superiority or arrogance, from a triumphalistic Church. It is from humility that we offer the refreshing water we have received from Christ to those who are thirsty. The bread we offer to the poor man is not our bread, but bread we have received from Christ and which we share with him. Our evangelization is not from a certainty that we have all the answers and know what is right in every situation. We evangelize through sharing our own lives, our stories, our happinesses, struggles and weakness, for we are but fellow-pilgrims journeying together to the Promised Land. In Christ, the Church has the fullness of truth, but in our humanity we have only poverty. “If one has the answers to all the questions”, says Pope Francis, “that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble”. Our words of preaching are empty without the witness of our actions of compassion and mercy, and even our acknowledgment of uncertainty.

So, as we live the present with passion we also embrace the future with hope. We learn from the missionaries who brought the faith to the southern tip of Africa – the daunting task they faced did not deter them from setting out. It would be easy for us, as we face the myriad problems and uncertainties of our countries and the modern world, to find the task at hand too much, impossible and overwhelming. And yet, the evidence not only of the past but of the present, the evidence of a faith that is alive, of a growing and thriving Church, the evidence of the commitment, dedication and love of the modern day disciples, is ample testimony of the activity of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s abiding presence among his people. As for ourselves, we are to remain faithful always to Christ, not allowing ourselves, in the words of the First Reading, to be “seduced into error” by systems, structures, ideologies or cultures that do not belong to him. We do not preach ourselves, our ideologies, visions or thoughts. We preach only Christ and the fruitfulness of the mission, and our very salvation lies in our ability to be faithful to who Christ is and what he taught us. In the words of St Paul, “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).

Bi-centennial Opening Mass

A special Mass was celebrated at St Mary’s Cathedral on Sunday 25 June 2017 to mark the opening of a year of celebration and commemoration of 200 years of Catholic faith in Southern Africa. Archbishop Stephen Brislin (Archbishop of Cape Town and President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference) was the principal celebrant, accompanied by more than 10 Bishops (including the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Peter Wells) and many of the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Cape Town. Religious Orders and Congregations were honoured in a special way for their role in building up the local Church. Below are some pictures of the event.

 

Understanding ‘White Privilege’

Some issues are difficult to address; ‘white privilege’ is one of them. Some of the immediate responses you get when you use this phrase are: “I worked hard for all I have!” or “I never agreed with apartheid and never voted for the National Party” or “I am not a racist and believe in equality.” These may all be true. However, this does not mean that you have not benefited from white privilege. Before getting defensive or heated about the term we need to step back and attempt to understand what this means and the subtle dynamic it reveals.

White privilege is, as Fr Bryan Massingale suggests in his book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, the “flipside and inescapable corollary of racial injustice. Racial injustice comes about to preserve and protect white privilege”. These advantages range from greater ease of moving into whatever neighbourhood you like, easier access to positions of social influence and economic power as well as greater access to quality education. White privilege is the result of social policies, institutions and procedures that have deliberately created a system to advance the well-being of white people and impeded the opportunities for people of colour.

The term ‘white privilege’ shifts the narrative from focusing on how people have been harmed by racism to how white people have derived certain advantages from racism – whether you wanted them or not. White privilege refers to the reality that, in South Africa today, there are opportunities still afforded to whites that people of colour just do not share.

Let’s be clear: you may not choose to be racially advantaged, it may even distress some whites, but you simply are, because you are white. You may have no prejudice in you, but the advantages for you are real. That’s the evil in the system – guilty not by choice but by historic reality. Fr Massingale writes: “Regardless of an individual’s desires, an ‘invisible package of unearned assets’ is enjoyed by white people because of racial consciousness that is subtly pervasive in our social customs and institutions.”  He goes on to explain that social habits and policies function to reinforce the individual white person’s beliefs about a sense of entitlement while at the same time instilling in black people a sense of inferiority.

Racism inflicts economic disadvantage. One of the manifestations of white privilege is the economic advantage white people have. This has been enabled and empowered by public policy, law and political power over a long period of time. Therefore, white privilege is a direct spin-off of racism. It is not about how hard someone has worked. It is about the fact that some people have access to resources while others do not. The access is not necessarily based on merit but on racial profiling.

Facing the reality of racial injustice, and its generational effects, means that we must name its causes, attack it at its root, and boldly accept the burden that the system has laid upon us all. It is not easy to talk about this but unless we seek to openly and earnestly understand the anatomy of the disease, we and future generations will continue to be infected, or maybe even destroyed.

By Russell Pollitt SJ