“We are living in perilous times, when the hearts and souls of men are sorely tried. Never before has the future been so utterly unpredictable; we are not so much in a period of transition with belief in progress to push us on, rather we seem to be entering the realm of the unknown, joylessly disillusioned, and without hope.”
Reading these words from a 1935 address from Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, who would become one of the most well-known preachers of American history, gave me some consolation. Every time has its tests. Will we meet ours, though?
A number of recent books have noted the loneliness in the world today. Sen. Ben Sasse, in his recent “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — And How to Heal,” likens happiness to four legs of a chair. “When all four are in place, things are sturdy. When one goes missing, your happiness begins to wobble.” Those four elements are not breaking news: (1) “Do you have family you love, and who love you?” (2) “Do you have friends you trust and confide in?” (3) “Do you have work that matters — callings that benefit your neighbors?” (4) “Do you have a worldview that can make sense of suffering and death?”
As Archbishop Sheen said in his 1935 speech: “And in all this confusion and bewilderment our modern prophets say that our economics have failed us. No! It is not our economics which have failed; it is man who has failed — man who has forgotten God. Hence no manner of economic or political readjustment can possibly save our civilization; we can be saved only by a renovation of the inner man, only by a purging of our heart and souls.” All I could think about when reading this was how everyone seems to be watching politics as a spectator sport and investing way too much attention and energy in it, to the detriment of the power of close-to-home virtue.
In another new book, “Alienated America,” Timothy P. Carney talks about how his community helped him and his wife when one of his children wound up hospitalized. This is the sort of thing we can forget can happen: when in need, your neighbors will support you. Human kindness is still active in the world, no matter what may happen in the headlines or on social media.
The first full week of March brings with it the onset of Lent, that penitential time for remembrance of what being Christian should mean. It comes in a time of political and religious turmoil, a never-ending churn of opinions and news so engrossing that many of us rarely look to see what the people around us need, what we can do to help our hurting neighbor, our struggling family member, the despairing person we see on the street corner daily without really acknowledging.
Sheen’s address is collected in a volume called “The Prodigal World,” a reference to the Gospel parable of the wayward son who comes back into the open arms of his father. Sheen tells us that even if we have strayed from the Christian way of life — one in which we follow the words of Christ as delivered in the Beatitudes — we can come back.
As the Senate was in the process of voting down the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which would have protected infants who lived through abortion attempts, I prayed with some of the Sisters of Life — a religious order devoted to helping mothers, children and families — in midtown Manhattan. A young mother whom the Sisters had helped joined us, too, along with her young daughter of about 2. The little girl ran a little, showed reverence for Jesus, and settled in with some drawing materials and a picture book. She’s alive because the Sisters wrapped her mother with love during a frightening, uncertain time. That’s what we’ve got to do a lot more of these days, and it means we’ll have to stop being constantly distracted from the ever-present hope and love of the world, and the duty those things demand from us.