Monday, January 23, 2012

A Day Of Penance

What can I say to reflect on the events of this day, and on the meaning of the profound and pervasive violence that afflicts our culture?


No one wants to think about it. Yet it's an epidemic. Violence against a defenseless child in the womb of his or her mother. Violence against a woman, who is so often left alone and desperate in a time when she is most in need of help. A kind of secret violence against this most intimate and fundamental relationship between human beings that cries out for love, support, and protection. Why is this happening in the world? We know it's not just America. Contemporary Western culture spreads this epidemic wherever it goes. Nevertheless, earnest and sincere people, who affirm the importance of human dignity, who deplore wars and conflicts between nations, seem to go blind when it comes to this fact.

There are many particular ways to approach this silent catastrophe, to work to extend legal protection to the life of every human being, and to support mothers and sustain the necessary and precious bond between mothers and their children in the womb. I agree with the way these things are addressed by many dedicated, compassionate, and articulate people. What can I add to everything that they have said? I am struck by a fundamental problem. It is the problem that strikes me again and again.

To put it very simply: What is the foundation of the dignity of the human person? The foundation is very important. It's what keeps something from blowing away when the wind gets rough. We live in a world in which there is a strong intuition, inclination, and sentiment in favor of this dignity. But that awareness and that sentiment can be uprooted in frightening ways, in the face even of compelling scientific evidence, when there is no foundation.

The dignity of the human person is founded upon--indeed consists in--his or her being created in the image of God, and his or her eternal destiny in God. The human person is the image of God. Whatever condition he or she may be in, the human person is always a someone, and therefore can never be reduced to the status of a mere thing.

The image of God. Dwell on this for a moment. The only appropriate response to the image of God is love.

God has become obscure for contemporary Western culture. And with the loss of the sense of God comes this strange paradox: even as we become more sensitive to various aspects of the dignity and value of the person, we have no way of bringing them together, and no criteria for how to apply them in complicated and difficult situations.

We would like to think we are building a kinder and gentler world. But violence pours in upon us from every side. Even as we become more attentive and more skilled in the art of saving lives in some places, we completely disregard the value of human life in others. We are divided against ourselves: wanting peace but waging war, wanting community but building walls of isolation, seeking healing yet constantly hurting one another. We want to build something beautiful and what emerges from our hands is a grand and spectacular monstrosity.

Such is the world in which God is obscured, and even the most sincere and ardent assertions and feelings about human dignity lose their bearings and cannot engage real life, real human situations, sufferings, and frailty.

I look at myself, and I see how hard it is for me to love my own children. It is not enough to acknowledge God. We must open our hearts and let ourselves be loved by Him, and love Him in return. And still the path is narrow, the path that leads to God and passes through the relationships He gives me with the real human persons who are in my life. Yet I know that here is His gift; here is where I find His face.

With all of this, my life is still full of violence, full of the daily failure to recognize the dignity of the human person in the faces of my own children, full of the forgetfulness of God.

On a day of penance, I must first of all beg forgiveness for my own sins, and resolve to take up once again the arduous struggle for healing and renewal. I do so, however, with confidence, because He offers Himself to me in His mercy. My hope and my strength is in Him.

But people try to build the world while pretending that God does not exist. How can anyone expect such a world to respect human life?

Still there is in the confused hearts of people this desire for a better world, and a better, truer life for themselves. People carry this desire in them along with all their violence that weighs them down; it endures, perhaps as a cry for help, a cry that recognizes the need for something else. In the spirit of a "day of penance," we must also take this cry into our own hearts and turn it toward the love of God: "Have mercy on us and on the whole world!"