It may be an understatement to say that 2020 has been a trying year on all of us. We have dealt with a contentious presidential election that is still largely unresolved. We have faced a global pandemic that has caused economic ruin and social isolation on a historic scale. This latter has surely brought pain and suffering to each of us personally as we may have lost jobs or (in my case just yesterday) experienced the death of friends. Our Church also has recently been made aware of the horrific details contained in the McCarrick Report, about sexual abuse at the highest levels.
We all want 2020 to end…yesterday!
Yet, we know that it will continue for a little more than a month now. So, where and to whom can we turn for hope, even if these next five weeks last a little longer than we might like? One great place for Catholics to turn is to “America’s bishop,” Fulton Sheen. Ever the great preacher and wordsmith, Sheen provided some great advice to Americans in mid-century, which we can appropriate as we watch 2020 draw to a close.
The first bit of advice the good bishop would give is for us to look to Our Blessed Lord, and be connected with the ministry of the Church He established. At the very end of his first series of radio addresses as host of The Catholic Hour in 1930, Sheen reminded his listeners: “Christ rose from the dead, not because He is man, but because He is God. The Church rises from the sepulcher in which violent hands or passing errors would inter her, not because she is human, but because she is Divine.” Even with the difficulties of 2020, we can look to Jesus Christ, especially the Crucified Lord, and realize that death and suffering is not the end. He has conquered, and He wants to conquer for us and with us, too!
The next bit of advice that Archbishop Sheen imparted to his own age, and which he would apply to us, is that the greatest treasure is often found amidst the deepest darkness. In a short article entitled “Treasures in Darkness,” Sheen tells us, “Only those who walk in the night ever see the stars. More men discover their souls in darkness than they do in light.” His point is that saints, men and women of true heroic virtue, have all traversed grave difficulties only to be made better for such trials.
Sheen took this point further, referring to the joy that can be found, even in suffering. “Instead of being cast down,” he wrote, “noble souls, in adversity, rise to new heights.” Archbishop Sheen sees and teaches that even the very challenging 2020 can be the cause of soaring like a jet plane to heights of holiness that we have previously never contemplated.
Finally, Sheen points backward to those who have produced great work in the midst of difficulty or suffering, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, John Bunyan, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As great as their works may be, they pale in comparison to the light shining from the lives of the saints. These “great ones,” he tells us, “have laid hold of some infirmity, and through it purchased strength,” just as St. Paul wrote in his scriptural epistles.
All of this connects to our lived Catholic experience not only in a general, but also in a specific way. Of course, we all need to gaze upon the lives of Jesus and the saints more fully; to meditate upon them and try to imitate them. That is a given. But, what else can we do right now, as 2020 draws to its belabored end?
I think Archbishop Sheen would tell us to look to the beginning of a new liturgical year, which is so nigh (or, has just begun, depending on when this is published). Each new liturgical year is a new year of grace, a new experience of participating in the unfolding of the full mystery of Jesus Christ. While liturgical year 2020 has seemed mostly like one long Lent, we can look with hope and confident expectation that liturgical year 2021 will allow us to participate more fully in the resurrection life. If 2020 has been like hanging on a cross, we can hope that 2021 will be full of resurrection glory! Fulton Sheen would hope that, and he would want us to hope that as well.
So, as the new liturgical year begins with the season of Advent, the season of joy and hope, we all can believe that our loving Father and our merciful Savior want the best year ever for each of us. Let’s also remember that the best things on offer from God also come with a little bit of darkness on this side of Heaven. As Venerable Fulton Sheen put it, “Without faith, affliction and darkness can burn and sear and cut the soul. But when trials are seen through the cross, then they fit into the Divine Plan.” That Divine Plan will lead us straight into eternal joy! Here’s hoping a great, blessed new year for all of us!