I recently found myself in the basement of a beautiful and historic church in a rural part of our diocese. After taking care of the necessities and heading back to the sacristy to prepare for Mass, I happened upon a large and rather dusty bulletin board. On it were pinned various stories and pictures of the parish from years past, an article from a magazine about the small town’s work during the Cold War, a first Communion picture from 1962 and a picture of the graduating eighth-grade class from the parish school in 1950.
In all of these black-and-white photographs, I saw smiling people from over a half century ago. The parish church is always depicted as the center of the small town and the life of the people who lived there. I smiled a rather sad smile as I looked upon what once was. The school has long been closed, industry has moved away to a foreign country and the parish church, with its aging population, is all that remains of the small town.
While gazing upon all of this, an elegant woman of some years came downstairs and saw me looking at the bulletin board with its pictures from the past. She came over and asked me, brimming with pride for her community, what I thought of the pictures. I said, “I am looking at all of these wonderful pictures from a happier time.” She took a step backwards, cocked her head and looked at me. And with a mysterious smile, she said, “Oh Father, there are still some happy times.” And I was well rebuked.
Today, it is quite easy for many of us to yearn for happier times. It has been widely noted that the average American believes that the next generation’s lives will not be as prosperous or as happy as our own. Suicide rates are skyrocketing, deaths from the abuse of narcotics are on the rise, and the average life expectancy in the wealthiest and most prosperous nation in human history is declining.
The recent unpleasantness of the pandemic has only made things worse. Added to this is the breakdown of the family, rampant confusion regarding human sexuality, political turmoil, supposed damage to the environment and scandals in the church. Experiencing all of this and more, it is easy to understand why our national mood is so bleak.
And yet, there are still some happy times! Gatherings with family and friends, the joy of a newborn baby and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach are still with us. These are but a few examples. It is rather easy for many of us to worry and complain about the times in which we live. This is nothing new and, perhaps in our time, is justified.
However, isn’t it true that when we remember our own past, we tend to remember the happy things and forget the hardships? We smile for photographs because that is what a person does. But was it really so perfectly happy in those black-and-white photographs? Probably not.
In order to navigate the challenges of our own time, and really of every age, we need the theological virtue of hope. What is hope? Quite simply, hope is the belief that we have a future. Put another way, God is with us! The whole Christian message is that God has drawn near to us, to walk with us through life and to save us.
Jesus Christ is this closeness of God — he is the reason for our hope. When we take our eyes off of him and try to control this thing called life, we soon discover that things go from bad to worse. Quite simply, we all need a savior! And the good news is that we have one.
This terribly broken, yet beautifully redeemed world is on display for all of us to see each and every day, in every generation. We catch a glimpse of it every morning in the mirror. But the good news is this: there are still some happy times. This is what this wise woman reminded me of in the church basement. For the gift of happy hope she shared with me that day, I am most grateful.