On Religion and Human Tragedy

For those of you who don’t know, I’m a lifelong Roman Catholic. That may come as no surprise to some, while it may leave others, especially those who are committed skeptics, scratching your heads. Believe me, there are days when even I wonder why I remain in this tradition, particularly when I hear about some of the more baffling priorities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. However, it is part of me and likely always will be. At its best, my religion challenges me to do better, to be better, and to make a difference for good in other people’s lives. More often than not, I fail to meet that challenge, but it is always there. You don’t have to believe that Jesus is God to take up that challenge. For me, however, that belief is the starting point for everything else.

Today, however, I left Mass feeling annoyed and shaking my head. The deacon who gave the homily spoke about the first Sunday of Advent in predictable, bland terms. It was pleasant and all, and would have been okay for any other first Sunday of Advent. But this wasn’t just any ordinary Sunday.

In case you haven’t followed the news over the past several days, a young woman who lived within walking distance of my house disappeared on Friday, Nov. 19. After eight days of searching, authorities yesterday found her dead body partially hidden in a wooded area in a park where I have walked my dogs literally dozens of times. She had been murdered, allegedly by her ex-boyfriend (supposedly, he wasn’t buying the “ex” part.) Just like that, a lovely 20 year-old girl with a world of promise and bright future is gone, another victim of violence at the hands of a so-called loved one.

I did not know Jenni-Lyn Watson; I don’t know her family. My two older sons did not know her, though they have told me that she rode their school bus. My closest connection is that I have from time to time gone jogging on the street where her family lives. It doesn’t matter. As a parent, my heart aches for her parents, her sister, and all of the friends and relatives who loved her. Coming a close second is my sadness for the alleged killer’s parents, who must feel as if their world is collapsing around them. And we can’t forget that the ex-boyfriend has not yet been convicted of the crime; in fact, the public has seen almost none of the evidence that supposedly links him to it. If he is guilty, then he deserves whatever punishment the court throws at him; if not, his life has been ruined for no reason. I’m trying to withhold judgment here, angry as I am that someone here could do something like this.

So why did I leave Mass this morning annoyed? Because this was a very significant tragedy for our community. There was one thing that was on the minds of everyone in that church this morning; our hearts were heavy because of the sad news about Jenni-Lyn Watson, who grew up less than five miles from the church. Yet the deacon spoke not one word about it. Even if he wanted to devote most of his homily to the message of Advent, he could have taken a few minutes to address what was on everyone’s minds. Did he? No, but he managed to mention at least three times the special vigil Mass for the unborn that he attended last night.

Sometimes, especially when something terrible has happened, we go to church for comfort, to be reassured, to hear someone say, “God knows you’re hurting, and He’s there for you.” I know I was looking for that this morning, and I suspect a lot of other people were as well. Instead, we got yet another reminder that abortion is legal in this country. Guess what? I’ve been hearing about that since I was in the sixth grade. I get the message. Today, one preacher had a golden opportunity to reach out to his listeners and give them the warmth of God’s love. And he blew it.

When people leave their churches, whatever the religion may be, this is one of the reasons why they do it. Yes, the Bible, written as it was thousands of years ago by simple men, is filled with agricultural analogies to which we in modern society have trouble relating (“bear good fruit” may have had more impact two hundred years ago than it does today.) Yes, the music is often dreary (increasingly I notice that the lyrics “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad” are often set to a minor key. Interesting contrast.) And often the homilies are formulaic and abstract. But I think the real reason people leave is that they see no relevance in the service or Mass to the problems they face the rest of the week. How does the absurd phrase, “Let go and let God” have any meaning when your employer is losing money and you’re worried about another round of layoffs? Who exactly can let go of their worries in that situation? They can’t, nor should they. They can pray to God for strength, for a good ending to the situation, or for grace in dealing with it, but they can’t whistle, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

And when we go to church seeking comfort from our pain (and my sadness about Jenni-Lyn’s death is miniscule compared to what her family and friends are experiencing,) we don’t need a reflection on today’s reading from Isaiah. We need to hear some variation of, “Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil for You are with me.” When religion touches people where they hurt, the people come back.

As for me, I’ll go to Mass next weekend and the next and the next. And maybe the preacher will pleasantly surprise me and say something uplifting or challenging, something that I’ll think about over and over again during the week. Or maybe I’ll hear another homily lifted from a textbook. During this, what is supposed to be the season of hope, that is one very depressing thought.

Please pray for Jenni-Lyn Watson and Steven Pieper and their families and loved ones.

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3 Responses to On Religion and Human Tragedy

  1. Mitch says:

    You know, this story bothered me more than most, probably because it is right up the street, so to speak, and I know the area you’re speaking about. It’s been the big local conversation on Twitter this week, and a major issue on Facebook as well. And it’s the type of thing that proves how if anyone in a position of leadership of any type is going to remain relevant, they need to know what’s going on in today’s world, and then find appropriate ways to relate to it.

    I’m sorry you left feeling less than what you were hoping for. Maybe, in a way, there’s a teachable moment in there somewhere.

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