Protest Can Be Prayer
Pope Francis continues his series of catecheses on the meaning and value of old age
As he continued his series of catecheses on the value and meaning of old age at the General Audience on Wednesday morning, 18 May , Pope Francis spoke about the figure of Job. He described him as a “witness of a faith that does not accept a ‘caricature’ of God, but protests loudly in the face of evil until God responds and reveals his face". All victims, like Job, he stressed, have the right to protest before the mystery of evil. Pope Francis encouraged the elderly to imitate Job's capacity to turn resentment caused by loss, into “a tenacity awaiting God's promises”. The following is translation of the Holy Father's words which he share in Italian with the faithful gathered in Saint Peter's Square.
Dear brothers and sisters, good morning!
The biblical passage we have just heard concludes the Book of Job, a universal literary classic. On our catechetical itinerary on old age, we meet Job. We encounter him as a witness of a faith that does not accept a “caricature” of God, but protests loudly in the face of evil until God responds and reveals his face. And in the end, God responds, as always, in a surprising way: He shows Job His glory without crushing him, or better still, with sovereign tenderness, tenderly, just like God always does. The pages of this book need to be read well, without prejudices, without stereotypes, to understand the power of Job’s cry. It would be good for us to learn from him how to overcome the temptation of moralism when faced with exasperation and bitterness over the pain of having lost everything.
In this concluding passage of the book — we remember the story — Job loses everything in his life, he loses his wealth, he loses his family, he loses his son and he even loses his health, and he remains there: plagued, in dialogue with three friends, then a fourth one, who come to greet him. This is the story, and in today’s passage, the concluding passage of the book, when God finally takes the floor (and this dialogue between Job and his friends is like the path leading to the moment in which God speaks his Word), Job is praised because he understood the mystery of God’s tenderness hidden behind his silence. God rebukes Job’s friends who presumed to know everything, to know about God and about suffering, and, having come to comfort Job, they had ended up judging him with their preconceived paradigms. God preserve us from this hypocritical and presumptuous piety! God preserve us from this moralistic religiosity and the religiosity of precepts that gives us a certain presumption and leads to Pharisaism and hypocrisy.
This is how the Lord expresses himself in their regard. Thus says the Lord: “My wrath is kindled against you […] for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has”. This is what the Lord says to Job’s friends. “My servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7-8). God’s declaration surprises us because we have read pages on fire with Job’s protest which have left us dismayed. And yet, the Lord says Job spoke well, even when he was angry, and even when angry at God, but he spoke well because he refused to accept that God was a “Persecutor”. God is something else. And as a reward, God gives back to Job double of all his possessions, after asking him to pray for those bad friends of his.
The turning point in the conversion of faith comes right at the height of Job’s venting, when he says, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (19:25-27). This passage is really beautiful. It makes me think of the end of that brilliant oratorio of Handel, Messiah. After the celebratory Hallelujah, the soprano slowly sings this passage: “I know that my Redeemer lives”, peacefully. And so, after this painful and joyful experience of Job, the voice of the Lord is something else. “I know that my Redeemer lives” — it is truly a beautiful thing. We could interpret it like this: “My God, I know You are not a Persecutor. My God will come and do me justice”. It is the simple faith in the Resurrection of God, the simple faith in Jesus Christ, the simple faith that the Lord is always waiting for us and will come.
The parable of the Book of Job dramatically represents in an exemplary way what truly happens in life — that is — that trials that are too heavy fall on a person, on a family, on a people, trials that are disproportionate in relation to human lowliness and frailty. It often happens in life that “when it rains it pours”, as the saying goes. And some people are overcome by an accumulation of evil that truly seems excessive and unjust. It is like this for many people.
We have all known people like this. We have been struck by their cry, but we have also often admired the firmness of their faith and love in their silence. I am thinking of parents of children with serious disabilities, those who live with a permanent illness, those who assist a member of their family…. These situations are often aggravated by the scarcity of economic resources. At certain junctures in history, the accumulation of burdens gives the impression that they were given a group appointment. This is what happened in these years with the Covid-19 pandemic, and what is happening now with the war in Ukraine.
Can we justify these “excesses” as the higher intelligence of nature and history? Can we religiously bless them as justified responses to the sins of victims, as if they deserve it? No, we cannot. There is a kind of right that victims have to protest vis-à-vis the mystery of evil, a right that God grants to everyone, that indeed, he himself inspires, after all. Sometimes I meet people who approach me and say: “But, Father, I protested against God because I have this and that problem….” But, you know, friend, that protesting is a way to pray when it is done like that. When children, when young people object against their parents, it is a way of attracting their attention and of asking that they take care of them. If you have some wound in your heart, some pain, and you want to object, object even to God. God will listen to you. God is a Father. God is not afraid of our prayer of protest, no! God understands. But be free, be free in your prayer. Do not imprison your prayer within preconceived paradigms! Prayer should be like this: spontaneous, like that of a child with his father, who says everything that comes out of his mouth because he knows his father understands him. In the first moment of the drama, God’s “silence” signifies this. God does not shy away from the confrontation, but, from the beginning, allows Job to give vent to his protest, and God listens. At times, perhaps we need to learn this respect and tenderness from God. And God does not like that encyclopedia — let’s call it this — of explanations, of reflections that Job’s friends make. These are things that come off the tip of their tongues which are not right: it is that type of religiosity that explains everything, but the heart remains cold. God does not like this. He likes Job’s protest and silence more.
Job’s profession of faith — which emerges precisely from his incessant appeal to God, to a supreme justice — concludes in the end with what I would say is an almost mystical experience that makes him say, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee” (42:5). How many people, how many of us after an experience that is a bit ugly, a bit dark, take a step and know God better than before! And like Job, we can say: “I knew you because I had heard about you, but now I have seen you because I have encountered you”. This testimony is particularly believable if it is picked up in old age, in its progressive frailty and loss. The elderly have experienced so much in life! And they have also seen the inconsistency of human promises; lawyers, scientists, even men of religion, who confuse the persecutor with the victim, accusing them of being fully responsible for their own suffering. They are mistaken!
The elderly who find the path of this testimony, who turn their resentment for their loss into a tenacity for awaiting God’s promises — there is a change, from resentment for the loss, toward the tenacity of following God’s promises — these elderly people are an irreplaceable garrison for the community in facing the excesses of evil. The believer whose gaze is turned toward the Crucifix learns just that. May we learn this as well, from the many grandfathers and grandmothers, from the many elderly people, who like Mary, join their sometimes heartbreaking prayers to that of the Son of God who abandons himself to the Father on the cross. Let us look at old people, let us look at elderly men and women, the elderly.
Let us look at them with love. Let us see their personal experiences. They have suffered so much in life. They have learned so much in life. They have gone through so much, but in the end they have this peace, a peace, I would say, that is almost mystical, that is, the peace of the encounter with God, to the point that they can say, “I knew you because I had heard about you, but now I have seen you with my own eyes”. These elderly people resemble the peace of the Son of God on the cross who abandons himself to the Father.
20 May 2022, page2