Choosing what truly matters and what passes away

Choosing what truly matters and what passes away Fr Kevin Gillespie says the vigil Mass at St Eunan's Cathedral in Letterkenny on Saturday night, with no congregation present. Pic: Margaret McLaughlin
What seems like disaster can turn out to be a gift of Faith, writes 
Fr Eamonn Conway


In 2009, I was diagnosed with a nasty form of eye cancer. Given that there was a likelihood of metastasis, my oncologist said that from now on my life would be a kind of high-wire act. He compared my situation to that of a fireman who daily has to scale dangerous ladders; the fireman knows that disaster might strike at any time but gets used to living with the risk.

Thank God, the cancer hasn’t recurred, yet the first few years in particular were marked by a profound sense of vulnerability and anxiety, especially coming up to scans and check-ups. I had taught classes on the theology of death, but for the first time I had to reckon with the reality that I myself was ‘mortally wounded’. I recall a book of that title by Michael Kearney, founder of the hospice movement in Ireland, that was particularly helpful at the time.

I wrestled with the usual ‘why me?’ questions, and a period of self-pity. Eventually, this gave way to a trust in God’s mercy and a sense of God’s presence that was more profound than before. What seemed like a disaster turned out to be a moment in which I received a gift: my faith became less idealistic, more real and practical.

Divine providence

I also began to understand what is meant by divine providence, which is the conviction that our Creator has not abandoned us but continues to guide and protect us. The theologian John Macquarrie said that we only ever really come to know God’s providence through concrete ‘happenings’, that is, experiences we have and events we live through that bring home to us the reality that our lives are in God’s hands.

These happenings reveal that “in all things God works for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Providence is not to be confused with fate or fatalism. Fatalism is the notion that whatever happens, whether good or bad, has been determined by God in advance. Fatalism leaves no scope for human freedom or responsibility. Providence, on the other hand, accounts for both, yet allows scope for divine freedom and responsibility as well.

Macquarrie gives us this analogy: God is like “a strong chess player who, whatever move his opponent will make, can still bring the game around to the way he intends it to go.”

One of the earliest biblical texts demonstrating divine providence at work is the story of Joseph (Genesis 45).  Betrayed and sold into slavery by his brothers, it turns out that he is the one upon whom the whole future of his tribe comes to depend.

The story of Easter is divine providence at work par excellence. Jesus, God’s own Son, is betrayed and handed over to be crucified. To the disciples this seems like a disaster. Yet God raises Jesus from the dead and his betrayal and crucifixion become the means by which God’s unconditional love is revealed to the whole human race.

We would all like to know what has caused Covid-19, not least if it helps avoid such disasters in the future. Yet that knowledge, if and when it comes, will not determine the meaning of this awful tragedy for us. This is something we have to determine for ourselves.

If Covid-19 has shown anything it is the illusory nature of many of our claims to power and to personal autonomy”

There have been claims that it is God’s punishment. Such claims are not new. For instance, when thousands were killed in an earthquake in Lisbon in the eighteenth century some people argued that it was divine retribution. Voltaire (1694-1778) responded: “Did God in this earthquake select the 4,000 least virtuous of the Portuguese?”

If Covid-19 is a punishment then it is a cruel and unjust one, afflicting the weak and the most vulnerable, on the one hand, and those with the courage and selflessness to care for them, on the other. What would that say of God? Covid-19 is not God’s punishment.

At the heart of Christian Faith is not a God of revenge and retribution but one of resurrection and new life. A number of New Testament texts record Jesus specifically severing the connection between suffering and guilt (see Jn 9:3; Lk 13: 2-3).

Are we human beings ourselves responsible for Covid-19? It is getting difficult to know where to draw the line between so-called call ‘natural evil’, for which we humans would not be responsible, and ‘moral’ evil, for which we would. Fintan O’Toole, for instance, has argued that we have “made an Earth that is subject, not just to our genius, but to our foolishness, our rapacity and our inability to imagine consequences until they are lapping at our doors.”


Along similar lines, in his deeply moving Urbi et Orbi, Pope Francis said: “In this world, that you love more than we do, we have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything…, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”

Unlike Fintan O’Toole, however, Pope Francis recognises the inextricable link between the ecology of nature and human ecology: “the environment, life, sexuality, the family, social relations, and so forth” (Laudato Si’, n. 6). “Thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation” (Laudato Si’, n. 155). If Covid-19 has shown anything it is the illusory nature of many of our claims to power and to personal autonomy.

This is, according to Pope Francis, “a time of choosing”. Perhaps we can see it as such in two important ways.

The first choice is to do as he asks, that is, to respond to this crisis by differentiating between what truly matters and what passes away; to distinguish between what is absolutely necessary and what is not.


When the time comes to emerge from our quarantining and cocooning, perhaps we will re-evaluate our family life and invest time and energy in what really matters. We might also re-evaluate our work-places and practices. We might rely less on policies, procedures and processes, many of which have proven to be relatively useless as we scrambled to adapt to a world on-line, and instead cherish the gift of honest and genuine face-to-face human interaction.

In my world, that of Catholic education, I would like to see some thought going into how we can do more than merely to provide students with techniques for coping with stress and instead to examine how we can accompany them in exploring the deeper questions of ultimate meaning that inevitably arise at this time.

These are the questions that should always be at the heart of any educational system or institution that considers itself Catholic.

This is, as Pope Francis says, “a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others”.

The second choice we can make is to recognise that whether we like it or not our lives are always lived as a kind of high-wire act. Writing at the outbreak of World War II, C.S. Lewis remarked that “the war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” So too with Covid-19.

Perhaps that’s the gift in this awful tragedy: we are confronted, personally and communally, with the reality that we are “mortally wounded”.

If so, it is a good space to be in as we celebrate Easter because it not only sharpens our appetite for resurrection but has us craving it.

Fr Eamonn Conway is professor and head of Theology & Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College.