Why are you here?
Not why are you sitting in your living room—or on this airplane, in that school pick-up line, or in the office where you started working ten years ago. But why are you here, on the earth? Ever wonder where you’re going or how you’re going to get there?
We’ve just asked the three most important questions in life: Why am I here? Where am I going? How do I get there?
Three Fundamental Convictions
I’ve been asking those questions. They have led me here, to this moment in my life, when I am driven by three fundamental convictions.
The first fundamental conviction is this: you and I are not alive right now by chance. God could have destined us to live in sixteenth-century France or in the Northwest Territory in the 1800s. Instead, in his mysterious providence, he chose you and me to be alive at this moment. Not in spite of but because of all that is happening in our local churches, the global Church, our country, and our world.
I am more and more enamored of a line attributed to St. Joan of Arc: “I am not afraid. God is with me. I was born for this!” I pray that wherever you are as you read these words, you will have the same conviction this heroic young woman had centuries ago: you were born for this moment. God is creating a masterpiece, and you play an irreplaceable role in this work of art. Whether you are a stay-at-home mom, a retiree, a high school teacher, a nurse, a cattle rancher, a truck driver, a lawyer, a teenager, or a grocery store clerk, you matter. Each of us is meant to be an instrument in his hands to help accomplish his desire. And his desire is nothing less than to get his children back and to get his world back.
The second fundamental conviction I hold is that the world is crying. To be sure, the world has been crying since that fateful day in Eden, but our current times are unique and unprecedented, at least in our country. There are many ways to speak to this conviction, but for me it started with a series of articles I read that reported that in 2018, for the first time in a hundred years in the US, life expectancy declined for a third consecutive year. This is astounding and hasn’t happened since 1918. Think about that! Lives are shorter, and people are dying younger—not in some remote corner of the planet that lacks access to technology, wealth, and medicine, but here in the United States of America.
What was happening in 1918 that had caused life expectancy to decline three years in a row? Two horrors: World War I and the worst pandemic in the history of the world, the Spanish flu. But the current life expectancy decline in our country is due to something chilling and new. (At this writing, we don’t yet know what the ultimate result of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, will be; however, the statistics I’m referencing were true even before the current pandemic crisis we’ve been experiencing.) Sociologists are calling the phenomenon “deaths of despair.” There are three main causes of such deaths: suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, and opioid addiction.
Since 1999, suicide rates have risen 30 percent in the general population and 40 percent among rural Americans. In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides in our country. The suicide rate among children ages ten to fourteen has nearly tripled in the last ten years. As I have, I’m sure you’ve been impacted deeply by this incredible pain, perhaps enduring the loss of a family member or a dear friend. I’ve lost both an uncle and a brother-in-law to this battle. I know firsthand the anguish and pain of those left behind after a suicide.
There’s a second cause of our declining life expectancy. From 1999 to 2016, death by liver cirrhosis, due to alcohol addiction, increased 65 percent, with the biggest jump happening among young people ages twenty-five to thirty-four.
A third primary factor for a heartbreaking number of early deaths is the current opioid addiction. Despite being only 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s opioids. Deaths of despair are happening at a staggering, unprecedented rate.
At the root of this despair are those three questions I mentioned. In a world where God is repeatedly pushed further and further off the stage, the creature who is made in his image and likeness—you and me—has lost his sense of meaning.
Jesus instituted his Church to address precisely this kind of despair and to heal such wounds. He designed his Church to be the means by which the world’s cry would be answered so that every person could come to know the incredible love of the Father, the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, and their true identity as beloved sons and daughters of the King of the universe. The Church is intended to be the place where this is not merely heard but experienced.
The problem, which leads to my third fundamental conviction, is that the Church is crying too. Like the situation in the world, there are a number of ways to speak to this “cry” of the Church. There are confusion and division amongst priests and bishops and confusion coming out of Rome. And most certainly, the second round of the sexual abuse crisis among the clergy in our country has made it abundantly clear that we are wounded and weeping. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 37 percent of Catholics are considering leaving the Church due to the sexual abuse scandal. With roughly seventy million Catholics in the US, that translates to twenty-six million people who are hurting, scandalized, and disillusioned. The Church is crying.
For many who serve in parish or diocesan life, whether as priests or lay men and women, there is also the experience that parish life is not quite what it could and should be. Too many days are spent playing “whack-a-mole.” With fires raging daily, we grow accustomed to having our heads on a swivel, bouncing from emergency to emergency. One person has suggested that working in the Church reminds them of a football game: there are twenty-two men desperately in need of rest racing around the field, and they’re being watched by thousands of people in the stands who are desperately in need of exercise.
I recently finished a twelve-year stint as pastor of an extraordinary parish in the Archdiocese of Detroit. I’m grateful for the people I was blessed to walk with during this time, even though serving a parish with nearly 3,600 families can be stressful. My archbishop graciously allowed me to create a new ministry, Acts XXIX, but before that began, I was able to take a month off to recharge. Around the third week, I realized I was suffering from what I can only call some type of post-traumatic stress. I’d gotten so used to racing from one trauma to another, day after day (almost hour after hour!) that I didn’t realize how desperately I needed a break. Countless priest friends, not to mention lay men and women who serve in parishes, are suffering through the same experience right now.
In these times, then, when both the world and the Church are crying, what is the way forward? How do we move beyond such immense discouragement?
Recapturing the Big Picture
Would it surprise you to read that I’m not discouraged but am actually encouraged, even excited? That might sound crazy, but I like challenges, and I love a good fight. Clearly, God didn’t want you and me to live in a time that is dull and monotonous. He wanted us to live now. He has equipped us with everything we need to be instruments in his hands in order to share the gospel. These are not dark days but great days to be alive. God is not nervous or anxious; he’s chosen you and me for this moment.
Of course, I don’t presume that I have the answer for our next steps, but I would say that it’s what God has put on my heart to share with everyone I can because I believe it to be the most important thing right now in the fight for God to get his world back. Why? Because with every fire raging in the country, the world, and the Church, there is an urgent need to recapture the big picture, to acquire again (or perhaps for the first time) a biblical way of seeing reality.
Dr. Scott Hahn, founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology sums it up like this:
Though we sometimes wonder why God allows so much sickness, suffering, and evil, we take a look at the cross and we see the greatest evil ever perpetrated, the greatest suffering ever endured, and then the greatest gift God has ever given— the salvation of the human race.
We live at a moment when all other monuments are falling. We live in a time when so many ancient documents, alas, are going unread or actually being banned for their civilizational associations. In some senses, this is a disaster to be mourned. At the same time, we must see it as an opportunity to be embraced. We have been created for this moment and called for this moment and so we will be empowered for this moment.
Ours is the story of Jesus Christ, and it is a story that encompasses all others and surpasses all others. It is a monument that will stand when all others have fallen. It is a narrative that will hold together when all others have unraveled.
God wants his world back, and he has destined us to be alive at this moment. Let us declare, as St. Joan of Arc did, “I was born for this” and live as his instruments in accomplishing that desire.
This is a selection from Rescued: The Unexpected and Extraordinary News of the Gospel by Fr. John Riccardo (The Word Among Us Press, 2020), available from www.wau.org/books.