Archbishop John Dew
Images of the frightening tsunami rolling over the coast of north eastern Japan and inland for miles filled our TV screens on Friday evening March 11. It was like a shoreless ocean. Within hours there was a tsunami warning issued for the Pacific Ocean, ‘travelling’ across the Pacific eastwards at the speed of a jet plane, making landfall in southern Chile 21 hours later.
In New Zealand we watched with growing anxiety as we thought of Pacific islands like Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tongatapu where people have no higher ground to run to.
The images of the tsunami recalled for me the title of the bishops’ Pastoral Reflection on Suffering, A Shoreless Ocean, issued late last year. To those engulfed by the tsunami, it was a shoreless ocean, leaving in its wake death, untold destruction and desolation. Now, as the nightmare of a nuclear meltdown is becoming a reality, another tide of suffering is sweeping over the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami.
Closer to home, the loss of life in the Christchurch earthquake in February is touching people of more than 20 countries. Those still struggling to recover from the September earthquake last year are once again having to cope with daily reminders of what they have lost: loved family members and friends, homes, livelihood. Civil Defence and voluntary agencies, including the churches, have moved quickly and efficiently to respond with practical compassion. In Christchurch, there is a face of the suffering Christ.
These images of suffering invite us to a more profound experience of Lent: a time when we enter more deeply into the life of Jesus through prayer, fasting and charity. The title of the bishops’ letter is a quote from Romano Guardini (1956): ‘Suffering is a shoreless ocean that surged in on Jesus tide after tide’. In the suffering of Jesus we can find meaning for the many forms of suffering we meet in life: the suffering of others, even on the other side of the world, and our own. I invite you to reread the Pastoral Reflection on Suffering this Lent.
Suffering is an essential part of our growth in holiness. Last week at the meeting of the bishops’ conference, we spent some time in prayer and reflection on the Call to Holiness, as we identified it in our strategic plan a couple of years ago. Under the goal of ‘holiness’ the bishops have said:
1. The universal call to holiness permeates all that we do, brought into focus through prayer – ‘Christ among us’.
2. Catholics have a deeper understanding of the relationship between spirituality and the living tradition of the church.
3. Groups of Catholics are together exploring ways to holiness (‘living lives centred on Christ and permeated by faith, hope and love’)
4. Catholic families are prayerful and proud to be Catholic, nurturing holiness and mission in their members.
We still have a long way to go to achieve those goals, but they are a task which belongs to all of us. As we grow in holiness we are better able to cope with the sufferings in our lives.
The bishops continue in our Pastoral Letter on Suffering: ‘Unable to avoid suffering, none of us should have to meet it alone. Common to all, though individually wrapped, suffering needs a community response. In solidarity with one another, we can support and encourage, befriend, care for and provide reassurance and practical support to ensure that no suffering is left unnoticed and no sufferer abandoned’.
Stories of solidarity, of caring for one other, of practical support are showing that Christ’s compassion is alive in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. This compassion now extends to those in Japan who are homeless and freezing in the bite of a late wintery blast, even as in the background the nuclear reactors burn out of control.
As we reflect on suffering and how we deal with it, we remember that this is Lent, ‘a joyful season, a season of grace in which we are renewed in spirit’.