Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
My faith has been on the line for the past couple of years. Nearly every time I feel drawn back to confession and an active life within the Church, I read something like this and have great doubts.
I understand the consequences of sin causing tragedy in our world, but why would God allow a church roof to fall in and kill tens of people during the Easter Vigil? People were running from the outside Mass to seek shelter IN A CHURCH, and then this? I realize that it would have necessitated a miracle due to the sheer number of people in the church, but that's nothing if the Eucharistic miracle is taking place at every Mass, right? How can we consider ourselves blessed to find a convenient parking spot at the mall, how can we consider that a miracle has occurred when we find a job or get the approval for a mortgage, when twenty-some women and children perished for trying to give God his due worship, and on the night-of-nights to boot.
I just don't get it.
I don’t get it either. But do really keep that in mind. You don’t get it. You and I don’t know the first thing, let alone the last thing, about the lives of the people who died that night. We know nothing. All we know is that they died. That they were going to die sometime or other was already a given. What matters is, precisely, their disposition to God when they did—because this life is given to us with an absolute, money-back guarantee that it is subject to expiration by the Manufacturer at his discretion, not ours. We are also given assurance by that same Manufacturer that when our lives end, they don’t end. All who have ever lived live still. Those are the things we know. What we don’t know in the slightest—but are sorely tempted to draw conclusions about--is The Meaning of certain deaths.
In Jesus’ own day, for instance, people were tempted to conclude they knew The Meaning of why a tower had fallen on a few people (Luke 13:4). They were, said Jesus, totally wrong. Job’s Comforters were certain they knew The Meaning of Job’s terrible sufferings. God begged to differ with them. Jesus’ disciples were sure they knew The Meaning of why the blind man was born blind:
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. (John 9:1-3)
Others were tempted to conclude they knew The Meaning of why the up-country hick preacher with a messiah complex had gotten nailed to a cross after a royal beating all the best people said he richly deserved, on the very eve of Passover. Cursed is he who is hanged upon a tree. It was obvious to such people what The Meaning was: a dirtbag had gotten his comeuppance from a righteous God. Turns out they were wrong.
These days, people are much more inclined to discern The Meaning of such deaths as you chronicle by concluding that The Meaning is that there is no God, or he is evil, or simply a capricious idiot who kills us for his sport. Like we know any more than the clueless people who stood at the foot of the cross declaiming on The Meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus.
Bottom line: we don’t know anything except that the same Jesus who died on that cross loves the people killed in that tragedy no less than he loved his apostles and all the martyrs of the Church. The manner of their death is not revelatory of Who God Really Is, Nor is it revelatory that God Does Not Exist. It is the manner of Jesus’ death (and resurrection) that is revelatory. Look to that and entrust them, and yourself, to Jesus. In the next life, you may, if it is any of your business, discover why the lives of these particular people ended in this way. If not, and you meet them in heaven, you will not be grieving there because the time for crying and mourning will be over.