The day before issuing his much anticipated encyclical on the
care of creation, "Laudato Si'," Pope Francis set aside time
for a very different topic - the sorrow and agony we
experience in losing a beloved family member.
It is a universal tragedy and one which has or will shake us
A few weeks ago I lost a younger brother to a sudden, fatal
car accident and reading the pope's reflection cut to the
"It is a part of life and yet, when it touches family
affections, death never seems to appear to us as natural, the
pope told a packed audience in St. Peter's Square. "For
parents, to survive their children is something particularly
excruciating... The loss of a son or a daughter is as if time
stood still: a chasm opens that swallows the past and also
The pope is right but living as though this is an imminent
and fast approaching reality is not easy, especially when
summer is upon us, when loved ones are near at hand and
health is strong. We tend to subconsciously push the reality
of death to the periphery, out of sight as we fix our minds
on the teeming life that stretches before us.
Still, we know immense pain visits the world daily, we see
roadside accidents, hear the sirens. Those who suffer grave
injury and sicknesses stray across our path in wheelchairs or
crutches. We read of religious persecutions, murder in the
Holy Land and the whole gamut of human sorrow. Until these
calamities strike close, however, it is possible to live as
if we are exceptions. This is the difference between knowing
intellectually that the world is broken, and then feeling it
deep in your bones.
No pain is more pronounced than the sudden loss of a loved
one. Faith in God is tested - sometimes shattered - when we
receive the unbearable call that one of our own has been
ripped from the world. The agony and disbelief is beyond
comprehension, beyond reason. No explanation stands under the
weight of losing a close one. Death is an assault to our
future, our family and children. We had things yet to do,
ideas and meals to share. We had plans to meet again soon. It
can't happen like this! We were not made to endure this
separation from one another.
A few weeks ago I rode my bicycle down a country road, on my
way to have dinner with my wife and children at my parents'
home. We were to meet with my brother, his wife and kids, all
together for a Sunday meal of grilled burgers and good
Then my phone rang and my mother's broken voice pleaded with
me to "come quick."
When I arrived I learned that my younger brother had died in
a car accident, just a few miles away. It still hollows my
chest to recall those first moments. I had been with him only
the day before, clasped his hand, laughed together, talked of
the coming summer and the future. A seemingly eternal gulf
has now opened where once there was brotherhood and
This is the world as it is - beautiful beyond comprehension
and bathed in sorrow. This is the world Jesus Christ entered
20 centuries ago. A world that God had proclaimed "good" at
the moment of creation, but which now suffers from a deep
internal disturbance - broken relationships between human
beings with each other and with their God. It is a world in
which the mystery of sin and death has marred a paradise.
But if death is the most terrible severing of communion with
each other, Christ's death and resurrection claim to somehow
restore us to him and to each other. Christ conquers the most
final separation imaginable - death.
Pope Francis observed that because of Jesus' death and
resurrection, "death does not have the last word." Yes, it
takes faith to believe in the power and healing of Christ's
resurrection, but it is the sort of faith that resonates in
our depths. We instinctively know that death and separation
from our loved ones is an assault on human dignity, on
communion and love - all the highest treasures of life. We
cry out for healing, for mercy, for life restored. It is a
plea that echoes throughout human history and if it goes
unanswered, if Christ has not conquered death through his
resurrection, then St. Paul is right in saying that we
Christians "are the most pitiable people of all."
In the midst of mourning, when we cannot see or hear or touch
our beloved, the fear that death is the end can sometimes
overcome us. But here Pope Francis' words again cut to the
"Every time that a family in mourning - even terrible - finds
the strength to protect the faith and love that unites us to
those we love, it impedes death, already now, from taking
everything... The darkness of death is confronted with a more
intense work of love."
In a world where death will most certainly take the life of
everyone we love we can - we must - affirm as Pope Francis
said, that "our dear ones have not disappeared into the
darkness of nothingness: hope assures us that they are in the
good and strong hands of God. Love is stronger than death."
Joel Davidson is the editor of the Catholic Anchor, monthly
newspaper of Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska.
The views or positions presented in this or any guest
editorial are those of the individual publication and do not
necessarily represent the views of Catholic News Service or
of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.