Eduardo J. Echeverria | Special to The Michigan Catholic
My heart is broken. My beloved granddaughter Penelope Grace Deely, who was only 2 ½ years old, died Sept. 25 at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I was there with the family. In the end, her body proved defenseless against a virulent strain of meningitis. It attacked her suddenly and swiftly. She was dead within 36 hours. As I write, my daughter Genevieve and her husband John are at this moment at a loss to know how they will make their way through their pain and loss.
My youngest daughter Christine raised the question of unanswered prayer in connection with sweet Penny’s death. Why would God not answer the prayers of so many people for Penny’s life? Does unanswered prayer count against the love of God? That is the crucial question. All things considered, unanswered prayer does not count against the love of God for the fundamental reason that our lament has already been answered in the cross of Jesus Christ and through his resurrection.
A difficult question
This is not the answer we want, unquestionably, but it is the only answer we have that puts our lamenting Penny’s death in a right and hopeful perspective. “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us. Christ has risen, destroying death by His death” (Gaudium et spes, 22).
Still, putting the question this way makes clear that for some people, it isn’t about whether God exists, or is sovereign in power and knowledge. Rather, it is about God’s goodness, particularly his love.
As a committed Christian, how do I answer the spiritual perplexity occasioned by this question, not just for my daughter Christine, and others like her who have this vexing question, but for myself? We walk by faith and not by sight, St. Paul tells us (2 Cor 5:7). He adds, we see through a glass darkly; we know in part (1 Cor 13: 12). One implication of this limitation is that I do not know the answer to the question as to why the death of this child.
This child who was loved unconditionally and deeply. This child who responded unconditionally to her mother and father, Genevieve and John, with an equally deep love. This child, who was blond, with green/hazel-tinted eyes, and to all who knew her was beautiful, amazing, a gift, and full of promise. This child, my Penelope, whose actual voice I will never hear again in this life. This child, who is unrepeatable, one of her kind, irreplaceable, leaves us with a hole in reality that will never be filled.
God is stronger than death
Yes, we walk by faith and not by sight. Thus, given this limitation of what I can know, here and now, I am perplexed, but not troubled. My resolute belief in the goodness of a loving God, of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not shaken by the death of my beloved Penelope. I know who God is, and the Holy Bible tells me several things that help me through my perplexity.
What follows is more a confession of faith, of a reflection on certain truths that I cannot hold together in one rational synthesis, but which nonetheless provide light in our path ahead. You see the truths of faith “are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 89).
The first truth I know is that death is an enemy in the Christian scheme of things; indeed, it is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Cor 15: 26). Furthermore, in Penelope’s death — in any child’s death — I see the enemy of God. Moreover, Jesus himself assures us that “little children” belong to the Kingdom of God. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). So, I think we can say here without any doubt that the suffering of children is contrary to the will of God and the law of his kingdom in Christ.
In that light, I have the consolation that Penny is at peace because she is in the presence of the Lord, seeing the face of God. What also brings consolation is the well-grounded hope that by God’s merciful grace when I stand before him I will hear him say to me (adapting Luc Ferry), “Come quickly, your granddaughter Penelope eagerly awaits you.”
The second truth I know is — and it follows closely from the first — that I cannot find in the death of little children, in the death of this child, Penelope, an ultimate meaning or purpose. In a general sense, however, I hold with the Christian tradition that God’s goodness and providence is defensible in the face of evil and suffering. In other words, there is a theodicy (Greek: theos: God; dike: justice) that helps us to make some rational sense of these matters. Still, the Christian tradition has long recognized that there are unfathomable depths to evil that are only answered by Christ’s cross and resurrection. In short, radical evil is rationally inscrutable, in particular, evils such as the death of my beloved Penelope.
Trust in Christ’s promise
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe that death and evil have the last word, as if life is meaningless, a matter of blind fate, or wild chance. The Gospel brings us the good news that God’s will cannot ultimately be defeated. Indeed, it assures me — and I trust in this truth with everything that is in me — that victory over evil and death, and hence victory over Penelope’s death, has already been accomplished by Christ through his cross and resurrection (1 Cor 15: 54-55).
The third truth I know is that there is a battle of good and evil — and death is evil, an enemy of God! — darkness and light, truth and falsehood, life and death raging all around us. But as Christians we live in anticipation of the day when God will make all things new (Rev 21:5). This promise includes the dwelling of God with his people, with “God wiping away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Rev 21:3-4).
For now, we must pick up our cross and follow Christ (Matt 16:24) to his death on the cross and his resurrection. We know that life not death has the last word. We have the promise that his grace is sufficient to help us carry the burden of this cross of my beloved Penny’s death (2 Cor 12:9).
Finally, I have been listening a lot recently to the Australian Christian group Hillsong United. Perhaps I was being prepared for this lamentation because I have been particularly impressed by their song, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” Here, too, there is an emphasis on the sufficiency of God’s grace. It is his grace that will help all of us, particularly Penny’s parents, Genevieve and John, deal with their pain and loss. So I will end my short reflection with a taste of that song:
You call me out upon the waters/
The great unknown where feet may fail
And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand/
And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine/
Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now/
So I will call upon Your name.
Eduardo J. Echeverria, Ph.D., S.T.L., is a professor of philosophy and systematic theology for Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.