It was early in the morning when I was awoken by a combination of strange sensations and noises: the bed was shaking; an abnormal, rumbling sound was coming from outside; car alarms were going off; neighbors were screaming.
While I lay there disoriented and confused, my Italian wife, Katia, knew exactly what was happening: “Terremoto!” she shouted. It was an earthquake! After the house shook aggressively for ten to fifteen seconds, it started swaying for about the same amount of time. Finally, it stopped and everything became, once again, still. Eerily still.
Katia and I immediately went downstairs and turned on our tablets hoping for some news. The quake was so violent where we lived, I was worried about the epicenter. Finally, news reports came in. It was bad.
The first reports were that the magnitude was 6.2 and the epicenter was close to Perugia, about seventy miles from where we live in Loreto, city known throughout the world for the Holy House of Mary. There was tremendous loss of life and property, the news said. The most affected areas were the mountain villages along the border of the Umbria, Lazio and the Marches, our region. The damage was catastrophic and some towns were razed to the ground.
It was August 24, 2016 when that first quake hit. Initially, the death toll was just two. But then it climbed to six, then ten, then twenty. Eventually, it reached 299 victims. Another 365 were injured, while approximately 2,100 people lost their homes. It was a true tragedy.
In the last week of October, there were some more strong quakes -- a 5.5 and a 6.1. While they were mainly concentrated near Norcia and Rieti, we felt them lightly in Loreto. But the “big one” came on Sunday morning, October 30, at 7:30 am.
I was getting ready for Mass when the house started shaking. The quake was so long, my family and I had time to go outside where we had to hold a railing to maintain our balance After it stopped, we turned on the television. Journalists in Rome -- on the opposite side of the country -- felt it violently, too. The entire peninsula had shaken from the Adriatic to the Tyrrhenian Seas.
This was the worst of the year. It was a 6.6, the epicenter just north of Norcia. To my horror, news reports showed pictures of the church built over the birthplace of St. Benedict in Norcia. The church was no more: it was completely leveled. By grace, no one was killed; damage from previous quakes had already forced people out of their homes
And so the age-old question is asked: “Why does God allow suffering?”
In the olden days, people believed that natural disasters were “acts of God” (which term is, I believe, still applied in insurance and legal verbiage). Yet there are still some within the Church who still believe. Speaking on the esteemed Catholic radio program, Radio Maria, a Dominican priest last year opined that the earthquakes were “divine punishment” against Italy after Parliament enacted legislation establishing homosexual civil unions. Hmmm….
Indeed, his comments were met with a sharp rebuke from the Vatican: “Statements like this are offensive to believers and scandalous for those who do not believe,” responded Archbishop Angelo Becciu, one of the highest ranking prelates in the Vatican and closest collaborators of Pope Francis. He went on to say that such views are “pagan and pre-Christian, and do not respond to theology of the Church because they are contrary to the vision of God offered to us by Christ who revealed the face of God’s love not of a capricious and vengeful God.”
The archbishop’s response certainly offers a more merciful image of God, not one as a petulant divinity who would punish an entire people for the sins of some.
Yet, is it not fair to ask where the “face of God’s love” was that night when people’s roofs came crashing down on them as they slept, or now as they wander around aimlessly with no homes, jobs, or futures?
St. Augustine taught that the hand of God is not in the evil which he permits (and is never the agent of) but in the goodness that follows: “God would not allow any evil in his works, unless in his omnipotence and goodness, as the Supreme Good, he is able to bring forth good out of evil.” This is most evident in Easter Sunday that follows Good Friday. Indeed, as often happens after tragedies, the “terremotati” were the recipients of generous and gracious aid offered by people of good will.
St. Paul discerned the presence of God more directly within the midst of suffering, not just subsequently: “God encourages us in our every affliction.” Yet, according to Paul, the consolation of God is for a higher purpose: “[and this is] so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God” (2 Cor 1:4). Thus, the consoled can become consolers.
Indeed, for those who are spiritually mature, and called, suffering can have a much greater end. In the further words of St. Paul, it can be a way of “becoming like him [Christ] in his death” so that we, too, “may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). Here, then, suffering can become a way of mystically and graciously suffering with God for the salvation of all. In suffering, we, too, can “become a living sacrifice” (see Romans 12:1) in order to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (see Colossians 1:24). In this, we “pick up our cross and follow Jesus” (Mark 8:34).
Of course, there are no easy answers to suffering. The Catechism makes this clear: “Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil” (CCC, 309).
Though our faith may not give us hard solutions to evil and suffering, it offers us hope and consolation. As our world continues to be plagued with natural disasters as well as acts of unimaginable evil, may we always look to God for hope.