“But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body (2 Corinthians 4: 7-10).”

These words from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians have been playing over and over again in my mind these days like a favorite old song as I have visited the various parishes and sites along the New Jersey coastline of the Diocese of Trenton so dramatically impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  Who could have imagined such devastation when the storm was first predicted in those final days of October?

 And yet, once again, nature has visited us with a havoc that has left us reeling, clinging to whatever pieces of our lives we could salvage.  “The “Jersey Shore” is a phrase that usually fills us with an anticipation and happiness born of the fondest memories of surf and sand from our earliest days.  Now, for so many of us, memories are just about all we have left there.  For the vacation visitor or summer resident, the damage done by the hurricane has been hard to imagine.  For those who have built their lives and homes there, the devastation has been unfathomable.  No electricity for endless days, no heat or hot meals, no gas throughout much of Monmouth and Ocean counties were, indeed, an endurance test like never before. But people also lost their homes with nowhere else to go, a tragedy beyond comprehension.

Still, those words sound in our ears: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair ... struck down, but not destroyed.”  As Catholics, we humbly drop to our knees as we have so often done — in good times and in bad — to summon courage, to strengthen our resolve, to sustain our faith and to strive for that one, unshakable hope that God is with us and always will be — in good times and in bad.

There are not too many answers to satisfy the question — “Why do these things happen?” — that we may find ourselves asking.  As is often the case for people of faith, this side of heaven, we can only respond by simply accepting what happens and what is, acknowledging that life is ultimately a mystery of which we are a part.

Why are we here, now and not at some other time?  Why do things happen the way they do and not some other way?  Why can we direct and control certain parts of our lives and, yet, at other times why do we seem so powerless?  Why does an All-powerful and All-loving God, although never the source of evil or destruction, allow it to cross our path in life?  Why did Jesus Christ, himself the very Son of God, have to suffer and die so terribly so that we might live and be redeemed so completely? 

In the end, I guess that’s the point of faith: not knowing or seeing the answers, yet still believing that there is a larger purpose, now hidden from view, that will one day be revealed.  In the end, I guess that’s the point of hope: not standing dazed or fearful in a confusing cloud of uncertainty but reaching for something better and bigger and brighter.  In the end, I guess that’s the point of love: not feeling all alone in the world and disconnected, but sensing that we do, indeed, belong to Someone — Someone who embraces us and those around us with unconditional acceptance and care and who invites us to do the same for one another.

At difficult times like these, rather than focusing on what we may have lost and what seems to have been taken away, we need to look at what we still have and what has been given to us.  At difficult times like these, rather than dwelling upon what isn’t there, we need to see what remains and what can be.  At difficult times like these, rather than feeling alone or abandoned, we need to seek and find one another. “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; ... struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.”

What has impressed me most, what has truly inspired me in all my visits around the Diocese since the hurricane, has been the way people have responded to one another — people they do not know and never met — especially those most affected by the storm.  People organizing services and outreach, people feeding one another, people opening their doors and taking others into their homes, people sharing clothing and blankets and financial resources so generously with one another and not asking for anything in return. 

It sounds like Christianity at its best.  It sounds like living the Gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that are concrete and real.  Yes, Hurricane Sandy brought great inconvenience, devastation and loss but something greater, deeper and more profound has been found to fill the void.  Difficult times often bring out the very best in people and that has clearly been the case along coastal New Jersey in the wake of this storm.  Priests and parishioners, first responders and volunteers, community leaders and ordinary citizens, old and young alike have reached deep into their hearts and souls to care about and for one another.  I believe it is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ alive and at work in our Diocese. 

Three weeks ago, we celebrated a Eucharistic Congress to begin the Year of Faith here.  This past week, we showed where the Eucharist and our faith lead us. 

Most Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M., Bishop of Trenton