In this exclusive interview for CTS Catholic Compass, Cor Unum official Monsignor Anthony J. Figueiredo offers profound reflections on how we can as Christians react to and understand the devastation we have seen affecting Japan in recent days.
Who has not been cut deep in the heart by the suffering that we are witnessing these days in Japan? Thousands literally swept away – children, parents, brothers and sisters, friends, as well as at least one missionary priest – all who lost their lives, which they held dear just as we do, full of fear and in great pain.
The presence of the Church
Countless thousands robbed of their possessions, wondering what the future holds. Homes and buildings reduced to rubble. The threat of radiation that continues to devastate the lives of the already afflicted.
For Japan, as in Haiti or Pakistan, the Catholic Church is concretely present in relief efforts. How often we hear our Holy Father appeal to the international and Church community for material aid when disasters strike, irrespective of creed or race or political persuasion! He has done the same for Japan.
In the face of the very real suffering that we encounter on a global level – natural disasters, disease, famine, war – we are obliged to seek out concrete solutions to alleviate misery.
“Something beyond the material”
As we read in Deus Caritas Est: “Following the example given in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations” (n. 31a).
But Christ founded the Church to give something beyond the material. Suffering, both global and personal – sickness, loneliness, financial distress, family problems, and ultimately, the greatest enemy of all, death – requires an answer that only the possession of eternal life can give: to know “the power of Christ’s resurrection, and partake of his sufferings by being molded to the pattern of his death, striving towards the goal of resurrection from the dead”.
The “old man”
This was promised to us in our Baptism, which is the theme of Pope Benedict’s Lenten Message this year. The Greek word for baptism (báptisma) signifies an immersion or plunging in the baptismal waters of what the Apostle Paul refers to as the “old man” or the man who lives according to the flesh (cf. Col 3:9). This is the man who lives only for himself, arrogantly cutting himself loose from his Creator and selfishly closing his eyes to the needs of his neighbor.
It is not merely a theological description: every one can readily understand this “old man” because we experience the direct effects of this nature within us, summed up in the seven capital sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony.
The fruits of baptism
Baptism is the “encounter with Christ”, writes Pope Benedict in His Message. It washes away the original sin that we have inherited from our first parents and imparts a new nature, allowing us to put on “the mind of Jesus Christ”.
This “new man” lives according to the sentiments of Jesus through the supernatural life that he receives in the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul lists the fruits of God’s spirit dwelling within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). In the very depths of our being, do we not all desire these fruits in our lives?
Only they provide the lasting remedy to every human suffering, both personal and universal.
Finally, tragedies, such as Japan, bring us face to face with a difficult and profound problem when we consider them in light of what the Church proclaims: “God is Love”. Even those who place man’s suffering in God’s light, and who are convinced of “the goodness and loving kindness of God” (Titus 3:4), will be afflicted by this problem (cf. n. 38).
It is found in Job’s reproach to the Almighty about the presence of incomprehensible and apparently unjustified suffering in the world. Or even in Jesus, when He cries on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” (Mt 27:46).
Often, we receive no answer to the question of why the worst has happened, or why the Almighty has withdrawn his hand and does not intervene; we cannot understand why God refrains from acting. In spite of this, we should, amidst this inner bewilderment, remain in prayerful dialogue before his Presence.
Our groaning does not imply any error, weakness or indifference on God’s part. Rather, our soul’s cry of anguish to God proclaims once again his sovereignty. The concise and perceptive remark of St. Augustine can help us: “Si comprehendis, non est Deus” – “If you understand, he is not God”.
Monsignor Anthony J. Figueiredo, S.T.D., oversees the English desk at the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Dicastery of the Holy See responsible for the catechesis and concrete realization of charity in the Church.
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 St. Augustine, Sermo 52, 16: PL 38, 360.
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