2020 was a year marked by sickness, death, unrest, isolation, and economic difficulty — a year that has challenged the faith of many.
And so, one might ask: What good could come out of a year like this one?
So, for our final issue of 2020, Angelus invited a lineup of writers — some regular contributors, others guests — to reflect on how they've seen God's providence at work in their own lives during this difficult year. Their reflections will be published on AngelusNews.com from Dec. 21-24.
This year, 2020, has not been a good year with the COVID-19 plague raging through the United States and most parts of the world. As well, the economic consequences, e.g., job losses and struggling businesses, will last much longer than the pandemic.
I went against the trend, because this year was better for me than 2019.
On the Tuesday of Holy Week, I was released after 404 days in jail for sex crimes I had never committed, found not guilty seven-to-zero by the judges of the High Court of Australia.
Where was God in all of this? Is there a God, or the one God, who might be watching and interested in our suffering? An enormous amount depends on how we answer this question, because being a monotheist or an atheist, or not knowing, makes a world of difference. Being naturally religious, having a love of nature, does not help much when catastrophe strikes.
I write as a believing Christian and a Catholic. For us the one true God is not only the Creator of the universe, immense beyond our imagining, home to billions, perhaps trillions, of stars, black dwarfs, black holes, blue giants, red supergiants, and our tiny planet earth, but this Creator is the only transcendent mystery outside the universe, and he has clear ideas of how we should live and where we go after death.
He sent his only Son to take on our human nature, live among us, teach us the importance of love and forgiveness, and demonstrate through his life and death that suffering can be used for good, in the next life if not in this one.
God is in charge. As he is good and just, all will be well eventually and the scales of justice will balance out in eternity, where the poor and the unfortunate will be helped by positive discrimination. God’s providence will prevail.
My leading barrister (a lawyer in the English court system) at the trials was an agnostic Jew who observes the basic Jewish seasonal rituals, loves the music of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion,” and knew the story of Job very well, the first Jewish attempt to wrestle with the problem of innocent suffering, of why bad things happen to good people.
The prison authorities allowed me to keep my breviary, the official prayer book of the Church, from the first night, and readings from Job came up regularly in those early days. My barrister compared my situation to Job’s, and I replied that I was happy with this, because Job’s fortunes were restored in his lifetime. I was not sure that would be my lot.
Job’s sufferings were far worse than mine. His flocks and farms were attacked, he lost all his property, was covered in ulcers, ostracised to live on a rubbish dump, and abandoned by his friends. Even his wife urged him to curse God and die. While he complained to God more than I did, he refused to condemn or curse God.
But I had advantages Job never enjoyed. The Jews then had no clear ideas of a personal afterlife of reward and punishment, of ultimate justice, beyond a shadowy semipersonal existence in Sheol or Hades, and they had no clear ideas on redemptive suffering.
Their Messiah had not been linked to the suffering servant of Isaiah, so their misfortunes remained exclusively misfortunes. In faith, but only in faith, we know better. We hail the cross, our only hope (“Ave crux, spes unica”). This is God’s providence at work, redeeming us through his Son’s suffering.
During my years as a priest many have asked me why this or that disaster, e.g., death, sickness, etc., has happened to them or their family. I don’t know, but I reminded them that Jesus, God’s only Son, did not have an easy life and suffered badly. I, too, remembered this in gaol. And it helped.
+George Cardinal Pell
Rome, 16th December 2020
*If you have a personal story or experience in which you have seen God’s provide at work in this difficult year, please email us at [email protected]. Submissions will be evaluated and published as part of an ongoing series on our website.