Last week one of the worst tropical cyclones ever to hit Africa swept through Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, destroying towns and villages in its path. Hundreds of people were killed and hundreds of thousands more have been affected by what the United Nations says may be “one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the southern hemisphere”.
In Mozambique the cyclone produced torrential rain and winds of up to 106 mph. Floods of up to 60 feet deep have caused incredible devastation over a huge area with homes, roads and bridges washed away. The current flood zone is estimated to cover 1,200 square miles.
Aid groups are now struggling to reach survivors trapped in remote areas where villages were submerged. Thousands were stranded on rooftops, in trees and other elevated areas. In all, it is estimated that 2.6 million people are affected.
CAFOD – the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development – is a member of Caritas, the Church’s worldwide aid agency which is doing all it can to support the victims of this Cyclone. At CAFOD’s requst, parishioners in Catholic churches in England and Wales are asked this weekend to support its work by contributing to a collection. If you wish to contribute, any money you put into the offertory collection basket at this and the evening Mass – i.e. all banknotes and coins – will be sent to CAFOD on your behalf.
This Cyclone Idai is one of many ‘weather related’ and ‘natural’ disasters that occur around the world every year. They kill thousands of people and destroy, in one way or another, millions of lives. And, as Pope Francis frequently reminds us, the victims of climate change and these disasters are predominantly the poorest of the poor – the people who, unlike us, have few resources to begin with and none whatsoever to fall back on when their homes are washed away or their crops have withered from drought.
If you were the victim of such a disaster – with everything you held precious, including family members, taken away – how would you respond to the declaration in today’s Psalm: ‘The Lord is compassion and love’? If your husband or child was murdered by a gunman they prayed in a mosque in New Zealand, would you still believe that God is merciful?
In the Gospel (Luke 13:1-9) Jesus refers to two recent disasters of his time – one concerning an accident involving construction works, and the other a massacre of worshippers while offering a religious sacrifice.
The common belief of the time was that if a disease, disability or disaster came your way, it was punishment from God for something wrong or sinful that you had done. As you heard, Jesus rejected this explanation. Sadly, he did not go on to explain why bad things happen to good or innocent people.
However, if we take Jesus at his word, we can say that personal suffering is not inflicted on us by God in retaliation for something unjust or bad we may have done in the past. In moments of desperation we might be tempted to think otherwise but Jesus seems quite clear that this is not the case.
Why does an all-powerful and merciful God allow suffering? We don’t know [and beware of those who say they do know]. All we know is that suffering is an inescapable part of what it is to be human. However much we rail against it, we have to accept in the end that pain, suffering and death are an inescapable dimension of human life – so much so that by becoming human Jesus also experienced it, as we do.
While Jesus offered no explanation for why we suffer, he has taught us how we are to respond to it. On a social level he asks us to do all we can to alleviate or eradicate the suffering of others. One way of doing this, of course, is to support the aid agencies and charities that do such outstanding work in our name. Another is to offer what comfort and support we can to family, friends and fellow parishioners in their suffering.
On a personal level we must remember that Jesus invites us to carry our ‘cross’ of suffering with him. This means that by joining ourselves to him we are never alone in our suffering: he stands in solidarity with us. He too knows what real pain, heartache and suffering are so he understands yours. He may not take your suffering away – not even he could he avoid his own – but he will help you to bear it if you turn to him, especially when all seems lost and help is not to be found elsewhere.
In the storms of our daily life and in the loss and pain we suffer, may the Lord give us the strength to carry our cross with him, and to bear our suffering as he bore his.
Holy Name, Jesmond
24 March 2019