‘We are living in perilous times when the hearts and souls of men are sorely tried. Never before has the future been so utterly unpredictable; we are not so much in a period of transition with belief in progress to push us on, rather we seem to be entering the realm of the unknown, joylessly disillusioned, and without hope.”
Reading this from a 1935 address from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who would become one of the most well-known preachers of American history, gave me some consolation in the remembrance that perhaps there is nothing new under the sun. Every time has its tests. Will we meet ours, though?
Reading on, Sheen says: “The whole world seems to be in a state of spiritual widowhood, possessed of the harrowing devastation of one who set out on life’s course joyously in intimate comradeship with another, and there is bereft of that companion forever.”
Do people even feel like they have a shot often though today? Do they feel like they ever had anyone who would walk with them? Do they?
A number of recent books and other writings have noted the loneliness in the world today. In his chapter calling it an “epidemic,” Senator Ben Sasse writes in his recent Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How to Heal of happiness as four legs of a chair. “When all four are in place, things are sturdy. When one goes missing, your happiness begins to wobble.” Those four elements are not breaking news: (1) “Do you have family you love, and who love you?” (2) “Do you have friends you trust and confide in?” (3) “Do you have work that matters—callings that benefit your neighbors?” (4) “Do you have a worldview that can make sense of suffering and death.”
During his talk, Sheen continued: “And in all this confusion and bewilderment our modern prophets say that our economics have failed us. No! It is not our economics which have failed; it is man who has failed – man who has forgotten God. Hence no manner of economic or political readjustment can possibly save our civilization; we can be saved only by a renovation of the inner man, only by a purging of our heart and souls; for only by seeking first the Kingdom of God and His Justice will all these things be added unto us. That is the way the world twenty centuries ago was saved from paganism and selfishness.” He was talking about the birth of Christianity and the need for it to be reborn in the world again by Christians taking it seriously, living it seriously. All I could think about reading it was how everyone seems to be watching politics as a spectator sport today, and investing way too much in it at the detriment of the power of close-to-home virtue.
In another new book, Alienated America, Timothy P. Carney talks about how his community swooped under him and his wife when one of his children wound up hospitalized. Parenthood at its most terrifying became a confirmation that they were far from alone in the world. That doesn’t always happen. We’re dispersed. We’re occupied. We’re hurt. We’re angry. A few nights ago, as a man asked me for money for a coffee, another man passed by and yelled at him to get off the streets and quit bothering people. Presumably if it was that easy he would have thought of it himself. The passerby wasn’t even asked for help, the presence of the man simply moved him to gratuitously kick a man when he’s down in the cold. Our other frequent posture is mere pity, as we move along. But is that who we are and want to be?
The first full week of March this year brings with it the onset of Lent, that penitential time for remembrance of what being Christian should mean in lives and in the world. It comes at a time of scandal – as the once point man for reform in the Catholic Church, Theodore McCarrick, is no longer a priest on the evening of his life. In politics, we’ve seen a celebration of abortion instead of the “safe, legal, and rare” rhetoric that wasn’t so long ago. As we tolerate the unconscionable in refusing to protect infant survivors of abortion – though according to new Marist polling commissioned by the Knights of Columbus, this new open extremism may backfire on the Democratic party, so perhaps they’ll come to reconsider this doubling down on death – many of us rarely look to see what needs are around us, that we can help prevent the next abortion, the next single mother feeling abandoned, the next young man never quite taking flight, that there’s a foster child whose forever home might just be your own.
Sheen’s address is collected in a volume called The Prodigal World, of course referring to the Gospel parable of the wayward son who comes back into the open arms of his father. He advises that once we have fallen off the wagon of the Beatitudinal way of life, we can come back. “There is no reason for despair…. There is still some remembrance of the Father’s House. Suffice it to say here that some are coming back again to God…by trial of the world.”
As the Senate was in the process of voting down the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, I prayed with some of the Sisters of Life in midtown Manhattan in their chapel as a young mother who they had helped joined us, too, along with her young daughter of about two. The little girl ran a little, showed reverence for Jesus, and settled in with some drawing and a picture book for the time. She’s alive because the Sisters wrapped her mother with love during a frightening, uncertain time. That’s what we’ve got to do a lot more of and stop being constantly distracted from hope that lives in love.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.