The day before issuing his much anticipated encyclical on the care of creation, “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis set aside time for a very different topic — the sorrow and agony we experience in losing a beloved family member.
It is a universal tragedy and one which has or will shake us all.
A few weeks ago I lost a younger brother to a sudden, fatal car accident and reading the pope’s reflection cut to the marrow.
“It is a part of life and yet, when it touches family affections, death never seems to appear to us as natural, the pope told a packed audience in St. Peter’s Square. “For parents, to survive their children is something particularly excruciating … The loss of a son or a daughter is as if time stood still: a chasm opens that swallows the past and also the future.”
The pope is right but living as though this is an imminent and fast approaching reality is not easy, especially when summer is upon us, when loved ones are near at hand and health is strong. We tend to subconsciously push the reality of death to the periphery, out of sight as we fix our minds on the teeming life that stretches before us.
Still, we know immense pain visits the world daily, we see roadside accidents, hear the sirens. Those who suffer grave injury and sicknesses stray across our path in wheelchairs or crutches. We read of religious persecutions, murder in the Holy Land and the whole gamut of human sorrow. Until these calamities strike close, however, it is possible to live as if we are exceptions. This is the difference between knowing intellectually that the world is broken, and then feeling it deep in your bones.
No pain is more pronounced than the sudden loss of a loved one. Faith in God is tested — sometimes shattered — when we receive the unbearable call that one of our own has been ripped from the world. The agony and disbelief is beyond comprehension, beyond reason. No explanation stands under the weight of losing a close one. Death is an assault to our future, our family and children. We had things yet to do, ideas and meals to share. We had plans to meet again soon. It can’t happen like this! We were not made to endure this separation from one another.
A few weeks ago I rode my bicycle down a country road, on my way to have dinner with my wife and children at my parents’ home. We were to meet with my brother, his wife and kids, all together for a Sunday meal of grilled burgers and good conversation.
Then my phone rang and my mother’s broken voice pleaded with me to “come quick.”
When I arrived I learned that my younger brother had died in a car accident, just a few miles away. It still hollows my chest to recall those first moments. I had been with him only the day before, clasped his hand, laughed together, talked of the coming summer and the future. A seemingly eternal gulf has now opened where once there was brotherhood and friendship.
This is the world as it is — beautiful beyond comprehension and bathed in sorrow. This is the world Jesus Christ entered 20 centuries ago. A world that God had proclaimed “good” at the moment of creation, but which now suffers from a deep internal disturbance — broken relationships between human beings with each other and with their God. It is a world in which the mystery of sin and death has marred a paradise.
But if death is the most terrible severing of communion with each other, Christ’s death and Resurrection claim to somehow restore us to him and to each other. Christ conquers the most final separation imaginable — death.
Pope Francis observed that because of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, “death does not have the last word.” Yes, it takes faith to believe in the power and healing of Christ’s resurrection, but it is the sort of faith that resonates in our depths. We instinctively know that death and separation from our loved ones is an assault on human dignity, on communion and love — all the highest treasures of life. We cry out for healing, for mercy, for life restored. It is a plea that echoes throughout human history and if it goes unanswered, if Christ has not conquered death through his Resurrection, then Saint Paul is right in saying that we Christians “are the most pitiable people of all.”
In the midst of mourning, when we cannot see or hear or touch our beloved, the fear that death is the end can sometimes overcome us. But here Pope Francis’ words again cut to the chase.
“Every time that a family in mourning — even terrible — finds the strength to protect the faith and love that unites us to those we love, it impedes death, already now, from taking everything … The darkness of death is confronted with a more intense work of love.”
In a world where death will most certainly take the life of everyone we love we can — we must — affirm as Pope Francis said, that “our dear ones have not disappeared into the darkness of nothingness: hope assures us that they are in the good and strong hands of God. Love is stronger than death.”
The writer is editor of the Catholic Anchor, the newspaper and news website of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.