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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: Compassion in times of crisis

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Women and children receive aid in Tinmel, Morocco, 11 September, in the aftermath of a deadly 6.8 magnitude earthquake Sept. 8, which has claimed the lives of thousands and left thousands of others homeless. Photo: OSV News photo/Hannah McKay, Reuters
Women and children receive aid in Tinmel, Morocco, 11 September, in the aftermath of a deadly 6.8 magnitude earthquake Sept. 8, which has claimed the lives of thousands and left thousands of others homeless. Photo: OSV News photo/Hannah McKay, Reuters

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Mass for Tuesday 24th Week in Ordinary Time, Year 1, Sancta Sophia College Chapel, Camperdown, 19 September 2023

Over the last fortnight, the world has watched on in horror as two disasters struck North Africa. First, a magnitude-6.8 earthquake claimed around 3,000 lives as it devastated Morocco’s fourth largest city, Marrakech, and wiped-out whole villages in the Atlas Mountains. Those mountains rise by one millimetre per year as tectonic plates press against each other, but roughly once-in-a-century a major earthquake results. Gut-wrenching images of physical devastation and human misery have brought home to us the reality of the tens of thousands of injured, grieving and displaced.

A few days later Cyclone Daniel pounded the east coast of Libya, rupturing two dams and unleashing megalitres of floodwater. The city of Derna was washed into the sea, with the death toll likely to top 20,000 as bodies are recovered. Now clean-water shortages, disease and floating landmines are multiplying the damage.

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Suffering on this scale elicits horror and bewilderment. People of faith or no faith ask Why. Why do the innocent suffer? Why do some parts of the world get more than their share? Some conclude that life is simply a lottery; we are at the mercy of a natural order impervious to guilt or innocence; in this world some unfortunate souls simply draw the short straw. Others offer an even more dreadful explanation: the fates or gods deliberately bring destruction out of arbitrariness, cruelty or teach us a lesson; innocent people are collateral damage…

Yet it’s not only “natural evil” such as earthquakes, floods and pandemics that make us wonder: “moral evil”—harms caused by human beings—raise more why questions, even if blame is easier to apportion. Why wars like in the Ukraine, preventable starvation in Somalia and South Sudan, cruelty and violence on some streets and even in some homes? Why neglect, as in North Africa of late, where rescue efforts were hampered by slow response of neighbours and paralysis of local authorities? Why are so many innocents the victims of these human evils? If God exists, why does he allow such things? If these harms are somehow part of a big plan, how could we love a God with such plans?

These questions are, of course, perennial. Civilizations and traditions of every stripe in history have tried to make sense of them. Our own Scriptures begin with stories of creation and destruction, blessing and curse, paradise given and lost, of natural beauty and devastation by flood. There are psalms of lament, one of which Jesus Himself cries from the cross (eg. Pss 6, 10, 38, 42-43, 130; Mt 27:46). But it’s The Book of Job that is the Bible’s most famous exploration of innocent suffering and, in some ways, an indictment of the God who allows it.

Job, an admirable man in every way, suddenly loses his children, home, livelihood, health (Job chs 1-2). He attempts to maintain his equanimity and refuses to curse God (1:20-22; 2:9-10), but eventually, like many before and since, he says he hates his life and wishes he’d never been born (ch. 3; 9:21; ch. 10). Three of his mates try to challenge and console him with explanations: no-one is innocent in God’s sight; Job must have sinned to deserve such punishments; he should repent; his endless complaining only undermines religion. Job responds that he is innocent of their charges; his suffering is disproportionate to anything he has done; often in this life the innocent suffer, the wicked go unpunished; for all his efforts to be godly, he has become a laughingstock, but there is no reasoning or bargaining with God; he must trust that redemption will come.

His spirit broken, Job cries out to God (ch. 17). After carefully listening to Job’s indignant questioning, God poses His own set of questions. Where was Job when the world was created and the laws of nature put in place? Has he has the wisdom or power to improve the order of creation? The exchange highlights the gulf between Creator and creature, God’s thinking and ours (chs 38-41; cf. Isa 55:8-9). Who are we, the divine author seems to be saying, to question anything God has deigned? Job is humbled and his interlocutors humiliated, and he is given back his family and livelihood a hundredfold (ch. 42). He was right when he said “I know that my Redeemer lives…and that with my own eyes, I will see my vindication!” (19:25-27)

While logically correct, this response to Job’s suffering can leave us wanting more pastorally. Does God really care about us and all we suffer, or is he arbitrary in who he helps, cold and calculating in his balancing acts? Does he call us forth into being only to recede into the background, indifferent to our plight? Tonight’s Gospel story offers some sort of answer.

Like in North Africa right now, we witness the sombre funeral procession of a young man. Luke tells us that his mother is a widow, the deceased her only child, and so she faces not only loneliness but destitution. Confronted with her grief and suffering, Christ is God responding.

Compassion is a word we associate with Jesus and the God he revealed: we are told he was moved with compassion when he saw people hurting from physical, emotional or spiritual disease, harassed and rudderless, hungry for earthly bread and the Bread of Life (Mt 8:3; 9:36-38; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; 21:14; Mk 1:40-45). Compassion was the chief quality of the Father-God in his stories of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son (Lk 10:25-37; 15:11-32), and the dimension of God he tells his men they must most imitate (Lk 6:36).

Tonight, when Jesus encounters the bereft widow of Nain, we are told “he felt sorry for her”. The Greek word σπλαγχνζομαι [splagxnízomai], which is usually rendered “compassion,” means stirred inner parts, contorted bowels. Jesus didn’t just “feel sorry,” he was sick to his core at the evils that hurt people, determined to help, and was resolved that his followers would also (Mt 25:31-46; Jn 13:1-18 etc.). But what does that look like?

Well, unlike Christ, we can’t bring people back to life and give mothers back their sons. But we can engage in an active compassio, a suffering with that motivates action to help. And that must surely be our answer to natural and man-made evils: to help prevent or minimise the suffering, heal or resolve it, accompany and transcend it. To be like the Good Samaritan through selfless outreach and material support. To be like Jesus in Nain, risking his own physical and spiritual health by reaching out and touching the dead and bereaved, giving hope and life.

Circling back to the question of suffering’s ultimate meaning, Christ’s life, death and resurrection shows us that God doesn’t arbitrarily mete out suffering, nor is he indifferent to it. In Christ, God entered into our suffering in the most profound way, willingly experiencing what we experience, and offering hope beyond. Like Job, like the Widow of Nain, I know that my Redeemer liveth, and will multiply my efforts to bring compassion to this world.

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