In the regrettably long catalog of sad human events, closing a Catholic school ranks right up there. You have sobbing children, sad and often furious parents, defensive administrators or religious-order sponsors, outraged alumni. People feel betrayed, often for good reason. I know this because our family has been through this miserable situation not once but multiple times with our kids. For parents it’s sad, but for kids it’s the equivalent of an adult being informed that you have lost both your job and all of your friends in one fell swoop.
Last March, soon after the stunning announcement that our daughter’s 150-year-old girls’ Catholic high school would close down in June despite previous assurances to the contrary, I overheard a mother’s comment in a hallway at school. She had tried to get her daughter to go to Mass on the Sunday following the announcement. “She says to me,” said the mom, “ ’Why would I want to go to Mass, Mom, when God let this happen?’ ”
So in the girl’s eyes, God takes the hit. The mom now has to put on her theologian hat. She never knew about this hat in the early years of parenting, as she was getting along OK with the chef hat and the disciplinarian hat and the hygiene enforcer hat. But that day when her little girl came home from school and asked, “Why does God make clouds?” or “Why did Emily’s daddy have to die?” the mom realized she needed a theologian hat, too.
Does God “let” suffering happen? Not, I firmly believe, in the sense that God sits in the clouds dreaming up sad things to inflict on us, things like school closings or childhood leukemia or motorcycle crashes. Yes, God created the world in which these things are possible. God also gives human beings complete freedom in how we respond—‑or don’t respond—‑to God’s love. This freedom means that sometimes we will suffer horribly at one another’s hands.
The challenge for parents is that somehow we have to try to make sense of this age-old tough question for our kids, to explain the paradox that God is good while at the same time bad things can happen.
But we do know where God stands. In Mark’s gospel, a leper comes to see Jesus. “If you want to, you can cure me,” says the leper. Jesus answers, “Of course I want to. Be cured” (Mark 1:40-41). As John Shea writes in U.S. Catholic, the key words here are of course. “The reality of God,” writes Shea, ”is an absolute, unqualified no to human misery.”
One day in the last weeks of my daughter’s high school, a few of the girls went swimming in a nearby lake. A strong current pulled them out, and one of them drowned. The school plunged into deeper heartbreak. Teachers had been asked to start dismantling their rooms for the new tenants; even the crucifixes were being taken down. One teacher had brought her own artwork of the stations of the cross to temporarily cover the now bare walls. She decided, on one of these grief-stricken days, to have the girls pray the stations aloud together. When they got to Station 12, Jesus Dies on the Cross, the student who lifted her hand to read was one of the friends who had been swimming with the girl who had drowned.
We all live the stations of the cross at some point in our lives. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” asks St. Paul (Rom. 8:35). “Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?” None of the above, says Paul. He didn’t know about school closings yet, but I’m sure if he did, they would be on his list.
By Catherine O’Connell-Cahill, from the pages of At Home with Our Faith, Claretian Publications’ print newsletter for parents on nurturing spirituality in the home. Winner of the Best in Class award in 2013 from the Associated Church Press, as well as a First Place General Excellence award from the Catholic Press Association for the past four years running. Here’s a sample issue.
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Photo: Tom A. Wright