Even in a nation that is for the moment the richest and most powerful on earth there are many who must be glad to see the year 2002 go. Only an inattentive chronicler could fail to record that this was not a good year for the U.S. Catholic bishops, the managers of the Democratic Party, the frustrated searchers for Al Qaeda leaders, the people who worked for or invested in Enron and, most desperately, for the 8.5 million people who are unemployed. Only two years ago, many of those now out of work thought of themselves as middle class; today they face literal destitution. They have exhausted their savings, and for hundreds of thousands of them unemployment benefits ran out or were stopped on Dec. 28 because Congress adjourned without extending them.
It is true that certain limited gains emerged from nearly anarchic events. Two disparate examples suggest as much. Critics of U.S. foreign policy sneer at the American failure to establish so far a stable regime in Afghanistan. But as The Washington Post columnist Michael Kelly asked on Oct. 23: “Isn’t Afghanistan after American rescue a better place to live than it was before?” Only a deposed Taliban chieftain would deny that it is.
In an allocution to newly created cardinals in 1946, Pius XII, the pope whose ideas greatly influenced the Second Vatican Council, said: “The faithful, and more precisely the laity, are in the front line of the church’s life.... Accordingly they, especially they, must have an ever clearer sense not only of belonging to the church, but of being the church, the community of the faithful on earth under the guidance of the common head, the pope, and of the bishops in communion with him.”
It is fair to say that one positive consequence of the clergy sexual abuse scandal has been a deepening among American Catholic lay people of just that sense of their being the church. Another positive fallout is the U.S. bishops’ adoption of a detailed policy for dealing with cases of abuse.
All the same, as the old year gives place to the new, a war is threatened with Iraq, the people of Zimbabwe face imminent famine, and the economies of many Latin American nations are near collapse. More than one observer would agree with what the Jesuit theologian Léonce de Grandmaison (1868-1927) once said: Apart from the perspective of faith, the world seems to be what the First Letter of John (5:19) says it is—totus in maligno positus, “under the power of the evil one”—scarcely intelligible, with the good apparently defeated everywhere.
But from the perspective of faith, the view is not only different but encourages anxious hearts to look with hope toward a new year. There are as many witnesses to this grace as there are true believers. That is why it was once customary in cathedrals to sing a solemn Te Deum on Dec. 31 in thanksgiving for the blessings of the departing year.
Consider, as examples, the way two great 20th-century Christians drew enlightenment from their faith when they considered global problems. During the past five centuries the power of human work expanded exponentially. A single individual could always make a hat or plant a garden; but no individual, nor a million individuals acting separately, could launch a satellite. That was the achievement of a unified community. But in the world this technology shaped, there has not been equal success in eliminating poverty, disease and war.
In the opening sentences of his 1963 encyclical, Pacem in Terris, Pope John XXIII extolled that development of modern technology. It clearly showed, he said, the greatness of man, who harnessed the forces of nature and the infinite greatness of God who created both man and the universe. What is needed now, the rest of the encyclical serenely argues, is a parallel harnessing of humanity’s moral, social and political energies so as to establish a free and peaceful “world community of peoples.”
This establishment of harmonious order among themselves is the primary work set before the nations in 2003. But the citizens of those countries may ask what role a single individual can play in that enterprise. Oscar Cullmann, a Lutheran biblical scholar who was an observer at all four sessions of Vatican II, indicated the answer to that question in his short book, Jesus and the Revolutionaries (1970).
Professor Cullmann, who was 96 when he died in 1999, noted that our Lord was neither a revolutionary nor a defender of the existing order. What Jesus stressed, rather, was individual change of character. From this teaching Oscar Cullmann concluded that the social problem created by the vast inequities between the rich and the poor could actually be solved “in this age if every individual would become as radically converted as Jesus demands”—as converted as Zaccheus became when he climbed down from the sycamore tree after seeing the Lord.