As an idealistic, optimistic, college student, I was introduced to the documents of Vatican II, specifically, the opening paragraph of Gadium et Spes. “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.” This perfectly captured my desire to serve the Lord by serving the poor. I applied to the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and asked to be assigned to Alaska because I wanted to work among people of a culture other than my own. The JVC was happy to oblige and before long I found myself standing outside my new home—on the banks of the Yukon River in Tanana, Alaska, in front of a bright yellow trailer that was capable of running water but did not have it at the moment or in the next two months.
Quickly, it became clear that I was seduced by the idea of poverty and completely unprepared for the reality. For example, I never imagined it involved a yellow trailer with the ugliest orange and yellow shag carpet I had ever seen. Poor is so much more than lack of money. I had never had to live in a community in which no one was untouched by the toll of alcoholism. From its effect on unborn children, to the destruction of family life to the social toll within the community, life was often bleak. What really, I asked myself, did it mean that the “griefs and anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,…are the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ?”
We are not the Red Cross
Paragraph 22, of Gaudium et Spes suggests “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us.” This was proven true for me during my year in the tundra. My JVC year in Tanana taught me what makes the charitable and social service ministry different from the Red Cross. Our vision is that of the Gospel that enables us to look at the world through God’s eyes.
I have been thinking about this because last Saturday, more than 100 volunteers in social ministry and Pro-life ministry came together for a day of formation. The reading of the day, took us back to Jesus’ suffering, reminding us that even as we glory in the grace of the Resurrection and the Easter season, it is never separated from Jesus’ suffering. These are volunteers who work on issues that seem unsolvable and with people whose suffering is overwhelming . Volunteers whose work puts them in the face of the riddles of poverty, abortion, war, bigotry, euthanasia and advocacy. They work with some people who come over and over for help but often refuse the option that will be most helpful. When they have been blessed to relieve the suffering on one person, they remember the ten people they could not help. What keeps them from despair? What keeps them optimistic and enthusiastic? For many people they remember the moment of choice—to give in to feeling of overwhelmed and walk away from the ministry and the mission, or to turn to Our Lord and the Gospel. “Through Christ and in Christ the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful.” The gift of Catholic Social Teaching is that it marries the Gospel to the existence of grief, despair and injustice. The Church does not choose to simply preach the vision of the world to come and advise people to endure the present and wait patiently for the coming of the kingdom. The Church has not offered simple answers to what are complex riddles wrapped in mystery. The Church proclaims the truth, that the riddles of this age are wrapped in the mystery of God’s plan for the building of the kingdom. What the Church has to offer is itself—a community linked, joined, bound to humankind by the deepest of bonds. The Church knows that it will be judged on its solidarity with the poor and most vulnerable.
It is the mature follower of Christ who when feeling overwhelmed can dig deep and find courage and strength to continue to enter into the mystery of suffering in the story of the Church, in our sacramental life and in service. To embrace the gift of being able to grieve with the broken hearted and be an instrument of hope, to embrace the mystery that, as Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church reflected “All the way to heaven is heaven!”