Mass for High School Leadership Institute 2022
July 13, 2022
O’Dwyer Retreat House
Lessons from Childhood
As a stand here, I realize that all of you have much more recent experience than I do with childhood. It’s been awhile since I was a child. But when we were little children, the faith was presented to us in simple ways that we could understand, simple messages that we could remember. For some of you this might have been through songs. I will spare you from breaking into song myself, but one such song reminds us that God’s “got the whole world in his hands”… It then proceeds to say all of the people and places he has in his hand. It’s a simple message but also a profound truth. God is all powerful, nothing is beyond his rule. Jesus Christ is Lord. He has dominion over all things in every time and every place. The whole world is in his hands.
This simple lesson from childhood helps us to understand today’s first reading, which, at first glance, might be a bit hard to grasp. Throughout salvation history, the people of Israel faced one threat after another from one foreign power after another. In each of these crises, there was a temptation before them; what was that? To trust in their own power, to think that they could defend themselves, that they could defeat their enemies … If only they had the right enemies, made the right alliances, they could do it. Now why is that a temptation? Why is that a bad thing? Because it leaves out the core of who they are, the central reality that defined them as a people, that gave them purpose, and that allowed them to prosper: their relationship with the Lord their God.
For a greater good
So how does God respond? In a way that we might find quite strange. He allows his people to be defeated to be conquered. Why would he do this? Why would he let this happen? In our own lives we might have a similar question when we face the many challenges of life, when bad things happen to us. If God is all powerful, if he truly does have the whole world in his hands, then why would he let bad things happen? Indeed, this is one of the most challenging questions in life: why do bad thing happen, especially why do they happen to good people? Do these things happen because God makes them happen? Or, does he just allow them to happen?
In the mid-19th century, a French Jesuit named Jean-Pierre de Caussade wrote a marvelous little book called Abandonment to Divine Providence. In that book Father Caussade says that everything that happens is the result of God’s direct or permissive will. That is to say, anything that happens, happens because God does it or at the very least God allows it. This is a fancy way of saying that simple truth from childhood, “He’s got the whole world in his hands”. So, nothing is outside of God’s control. But this only makes the question seemingly more challenging. Why would God allow bad things to happen? Well first, we have to remember that, in his love for us, God makes us free, and in doing so, he takes this most astounding risk, knowing that we can reject him, knowing that we can hurt others and hurt ourselves. But he does this because there can be no love without freedom. But even if the reality of human freedom can explain the cruel & evil works of people, how do we explain other bad things that happen, how do we make sense of that?
Writing in the 13th Century, St. Thomas Aquinas offers a possible answer. He suggests that God does not cause bad things to happen necessarily but allows them to happen that a greater good might come from them. Now, let me be the first to that, however true this may be, this is not something you want to tell someone in the moment when they are faced with a tragedy. And when we are struggling, this is a hard idea to accept. But time is mercy. With time we gain a different view of things because with time we can see the good that has come out of struggle and suffering. Most importantly, our struggles, even our struggle with sin, reminds us of our deep need for God, our dependance on God and on his grace. Like the people of Israel, we cannot defeat whatever or whomever confronts us on our own power; we need the Lord.
He’s got you in his hands
One last thought: In the Gospel today Jesus reminds us that the Father has revealed to the childlike what he has hidden from the wise and learned. This seems strange. What is it that a child knows that an adult does not? A child knows that they need someone, that they need help. A toddler would never walk into the kitchen and say, “Gee, thanks Mom and Dad for all you’ve done but I’m just going to take it from here” They can’t even reach things on the kitchen counter. They know they need someone to help them.
As we grow up, we start to acquire more skills and abilities. And that is a wonderful thing. We start to be able to do more and to do more for ourselves. This is important. But there is also something that we start to forget. We forget that deep down, when it comes to the things we need most, we can’t do it on our own; we cannot save ourselves; we cannot work our way to heaven; we cannot earn God’s grace; we do not achieve his love. And nothing reveals this to us more than difficulties, challenges, and suffering. Why does God allow bad things to happen? That a greater good might come from it? Why would he allow us to struggle? That we might remember our need for him and that he might save us from the deadliest sin of all, forgetting God and putting ourself in his place, in a word: pride. This is what is hidden from the wise and the learned, from the strong and the powerful, but revealed and known by the weak and the childlike.
The good news is that we are children and we are children of a Father who loves us. This Father not only loves us but has the power to save us. He is constantly at work to lead us along the path to salvation, to the fullness of life here and eternal life hereafter. So today we remember this important lesson: the heart of discipleship is not learning a skill or knowing how to do something, or achieving some level of accomplishment … but living out our need for God, remembering that we are his children, and that he is a Father who provides for us. With that confidence, we can go out and use the things he gives us, to live the vocation to which he has called us, to build up the Church, and to serve others. He gives us the strength; we depend on him; but he is in charge. As we learned early on: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”