As 2017 begins, many are eager to forget 2016 — but just as many look ahead with dread at what the new year may bring. Will there be more war and more terror attacks by radical Islamists? Will there be more ugly political division and rancor?
And there are the small, fearful things that darken the conversation at dinnertime or that loom large in the silence of many hearts and minds — fears related to employment, parenthood and faith.
Every new year is an opportunity, a time of new beginnings. But while fear and anxiety can cause men and women, husbands and wives, communities and entire nations to make rash and even disastrous choices, the start of a new year is also a time to realize that, despite our anxieties about so many things, we often forget the only thing we should truly fear.
At the beginning of his papacy in 1978, St. John Paul II declared famously, “Be not afraid!” Our Lord told his disciples, “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).
Trust in Our Lord should ease our anxiety and help us to move away from any trepidations that may cloud the new year. Why should we be afraid when we have Christ? What more do we need?
The new year can be a time to refocus our hearts and minds on Christ, but it is also a perfect moment to remember the words of the Psalms. “Fear of the Lord,” the Psalmist wrote, “is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111).
“No one fears God anymore,” said Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the gifted preacher of the papal household under the last three popes, in a homily in 2008. He went on to say, “The more that the fear of God diminishes, the more we become afraid of our fellow men. It is easy to understand why this is the case. Forgetting God, we place all our confidence in the things of this world, that is, in the things that Christ says ‘thieves can steal and moths consume’ — uncertain things that can disappear from one moment to the next. … The decline in fear of God, rather than liberating us from worry, gets us more entangled in worry.”
There seems to be a contradiction in this, of course. We are told we should not be afraid, but then we are also taught that we should fear the Lord. As a people and a nation, we ought to recognize the difference between being afraid and having a proper fear of the Lord.
One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, fear of the Lord is born out of wisdom and love. It’s the fear of being separated by our faults from the One who loves us and whom we also love.
How can we mark 2017 with a return to the proper fear of the Lord? We can start by asking some hard questions.
Do we give God the love and gratitude that he deserves as our Creator?
Do we greet the beauty of his creation and his mighty works with proper awe?
What do we teach our children about shunning evil and doing what is right?
The Psalmist tells us, “Come, O sons, listen to me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord. … Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalm 34).
Are we living that admonition?
Pope Francis taught at a general audience in 2014: “When we are pervaded by fear of the Lord, then we are led to follow the Lord with humility, docility and obedience. This, however, is not an attitude of resignation, passivity or regret, but one of the wonder and joy of being a child who knows he is served and loved by the Father. Fear of the Lord, therefore, does not make of us Christians who are shy and submissive, but stirs in us courage and strength!”
In keeping with Francis’ words, as Catholics, do we have a sense of mission that reflects a healthy fear of the Lord and that impels us to proclaim Christ Jesus courageously and to stand together for the authentic common good?
This last question is especially important for Catholics as we enter 2017.
Faithful Catholics discovered in 2016 that when we are united and speak with a common voice, it is possible to be heard in the public square and to shape the future of America for the better. It was an immense achievement not seen in U.S. political life in decades, and we should strive to build on that in the coming years. But a fear of the Lord should also remind us to be yet more faithful to the teachings of the Church, even as we are aware in humility that we are prone to sin and at risk of pride and selfishness.
“We should take care,” Pope Francis said, “for the gift of God, the gift of fear of the Lord, is also an ‘alarm’ against the obstinacy of sin. When a person lives in evil, when one blasphemes against God, when one exploits others, when he tyrannizes them, when he lives only for money, for vanity, or power, or pride, then the holy fear of God sends us a warning: Be careful! With all this power, with all this money, with all of your pride, with all your vanity, you will not be happy.”
Let us celebrate the arrival of 2017, but let its coming be marked as well by prayer, discernment and, yes, the right kind of fear.
Happy new year from the editors and staff of the Register!