Once there was a wealthy and prominent man named Mr. Harris who somehow became convinced that he was losing his hearing. He went to his doctor, who gave him a thorough check-up, but was unable to find anything wrong. As a final test, the doctor pulled out a gold watch from his pocket and asked, “Mr. Harris, can you hear this watch ticking?” “Yes, of course,” the patient answered. Then the doctor walked to the door of the exam-ining room and again held up the watch. “Can you hear it now?” Mr. Harris answered, “Yes, I can.” Finally the doctor walked out into the hallway and asked, “Can you still hear the watch ticking?” The patient answered with a touch of impatience, “Yes, I can hear it,” and the doctor concluded, “Well, then, Mr. Harris, there’s nothing wrong with your hearing. Your problem is that you simply don’t listen” (Illustrations Unlimited, p. 319).
Sometimes when we wonder why things are going wrong, the answer is that we don’t really give them a chance to turn out rightly. If we don’t pay attention to what’s going on, or if we’re unwilling to devote the time and energy needed to benefit from the important things in life, we shouldn’t be surprised if life is unsatisfying, or if we seem to be missing out on something. This is especially true in terms of faith. We might be tempted to ask, “Where is God when I need Him? Why doesn’t He answer my prayers? Why won’t He give me some sign of what I should do?” The truth, of course, is that God is all around us, constantly seeking to reveal Himself—if only we’ll look and feel and listen. God has given us the ability to live and grow in His presence. It’s up to us to make use of it.
The readings for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time remind us that hearing God’s Word and growing in His grace don’t happen automatically; we have to choose this result, and actively cooperate in this process. The Book of Nehemiah (8:2-10) describes an event that occurred when the people returned to Jerusalem about 500 years before Christ, after a long exile. Ezra and Nehemiah helped the people rededicate themselves to the Lord; the two leaders read aloud from the Law of Moses, and all the people responded, “Amen! Amen!” Their active participation made this a special day and a joyful experience. So it is with us. Our faith will be unsatisfying if we experience it passively; it’s our active involvement that allows it to become life-giving and enriching. St. Paul (1 Cor 12:12-30) tells us that God has assigned different abilities and responsibilities to the members of the Church. The Lord doesn’t make everything happen automatically; He relies on us to do our part—and if we don’t, the entire Body of Christ suffers. Faith must be an active experience; God’s grace will not have an effect unless we’re open to it. In the Gospel of Luke (1:1-4; 4:14-21), Jesus announced that He was the One the prophecies foretold; His teaching was intended to bring glad tidings to the lowly, liberty to captives, and sight to the blind. During the three years of His public ministry, many people were healed, forgiven, and saved; however, many others remained trapped in their sins and imprisoned in their unhappiness. Everything depended on whether or not they were willing to listen to Jesus. Something wonderful was happening in their presence; God’s promises were being fulfilled, but it was their responsibility to recognize and accept this truth.
The same thing is true for us; we have to be aware of what God is saying and doing in our lives, and in our world. Maybe some important messages are being ignored, or some valuable opportunities overlooked, or some serious problems growing worse, simply because we aren’t paying attention. For instance, one of our family members or friends or co-workers may be trying to get our attention in an indirect way; without coming right out and saying it, he or she may be telling us, “I really need you right now; please help me.” We have to listen to these messages. As parents know, hostile or uncooperative behavior on the part of children or teenagers is often a cry for help; young people might act this way because they believe, rightly or wrongly, it’s the only way to get someone to pay attention. Also, if something is bothering us, or making us feel guilty, or causing us to feel bored or dissatisfied with life, that may be a sign that God is trying to tell us something important: perhaps that we’re ignoring a serious problem that really does need to be addressed, or that we need to seek His forgiveness for something we’ve done in the past and never really confessed, or that we need to forgive someone else, or simply that He’s calling us to a new stage of spiritual growth, and that we won’t really be at peace until we answer this call.
The same idea can apply to us as a Church—and a few years ago we saw this in a tragic way. For many years some priests committed terrible crimes against young people, and little or nothing was done about it. This grave situation could have been handled in a quiet but effective way, helping the victims while making sure the perpetrators never again had the chance to harm anyone. Some bishops did take this approach, but many others turned a blind eye—and so the Lord, because He was unable to get our attention in any other way, allowed the scandal to erupt in a terribly painful and embarrassing manner. The Church in the United States has been undergoing a necessary but wrenching process of purification—all because many of her leaders were unwilling to listen to the cries of the victims and defend the innocent. I fear the same thing is occurring in American society in regard to the scandalous murder of the unborn. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out all restrictions on abortion—and ever since then, along with 45 million unborn children murdered in the womb, we’ve seen an increase in child abuse, spousal abuse, sexual abuse, drug abuse, juvenile crime, suicides by young people, and other tragic experiences of wasted lives or unnecessary suffering; moreover, the United States, like other nations, is facing a coming demographic crisis, in which we won’t have enough people to keep our society and economy functioning properly. If we were to ask God “Why are You letting us suffer these problems?,” His answer would be, “You yourselves are to blame; that’s what happens when you choose a culture of death instead of a culture of life.” As Mother Teresa once pointed out, the seeds of abortion and other assaults against human life and dignity bear bitter fruit, and unless our country repents, there will be a terrible price to be paid.
As individuals, and as a Church and a society, we must learn to listen to God before it’s too late. Wonderful and terrible things are happening all around us; the Lord is practically shouting at our world, reminding us of our total dependence on Him. We must search for, listen to, and respond to Jesus. He alone has the answers we need, and only by repenting of our sins and opening ourselves to Him can we as individuals, as Catholics, and as Americans, be confident, happy, and secure.