The power of Trump, the power of Stalin, the powerlessness of God
We often hear people saying that Donald Trump is the most powerful man in the world. And this makes sense. He leads one of the world's biggest economies and is commander-in-chief of the most formidable army on the planet. In the mid-twentieth century, Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet bloc, was considered to be among the world's most powerful men. When he was told that the Pope disapproved of his treatment of Catholics, Stalin replied, "The Pope? How many divisions does he have?". The implication was clear: the Soviet leader would only be moved by the power of force.
Sometimes we wonder why God does not manifest his power in a more explicit way. Why do so many people suffer and yet God appears to remain silent? Why does God not act with power to stop abortions, famine, child abuse? Often it seems that the real power in this world is wielded by the unscrupulous, by those who are incapable or unwilling to act responsibly.
But is that account correct? Maybe real power if of a different sort? My favourite illustration of the stunning power of God is the story of St Jacinta of Fatima. This little girl had been thoroughly spoiled by her family. As her cousin Lucia relates in her memoirs, Jacinta was quite impossible to play with unless she was allowed to choose, dictate and win every game. After the apparitions of Our Lady of Fatima, however, Jacinta's character changed completely. The last months of her short life were marked by selflessness and virtue of a heroic sort. She offered every suffering as a sacrifice for sinners. Her death was remarkable. An infected rib was surgically removed with the minimum of anesthesia. Jacinta accepted everything with serenity and offered it all for the salvation of souls.
Now, let us return to Stalin. He and his evil regime were committed to constructing a communist society. This involved the power of the state penetrating brutally into every area of life. Education, journalism, religion and art were all controlled in an effort to coerce people into becoming communists. As we know, this exercise of raw power failed miserably. We could say in fact, that these various manifestations of force were largely powerless in their efforts to coerce the human spirit. Can we find one member of the Soviet bloc whose heart was transformed as powerfully as the heart of Jacinta had been transformed by the grace of God?
And this is surely the central point. If God sometimes appears powerless on the world stage, maybe it is because he has no interest in the coercive powers that operate on this stage. The Lord wants our hearts to be changed, and this involves respecting our freedom. A heart that has been transformed is one that has learned to respond freely to the grace of God. Force and coercion cannot achieve what the Lord wishes to accomplish in our hearts.
Yet even now, declares the LORD, return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping, and mourning. So rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the LORD your God. For He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving devotion (Joel 2, 12-13).
Mother Teresa of Calcutta has a vital lesson for us on this subject. The Lord spoke to her directly in the 1940s and called her to found a new order dedicated to the poorest of the poor. But then the divine communication ceased abruptly and Mother lived the last fifty years of her life with great aridity of prayer. Once, while praying in front of the blessed sacrament while a bishop was present, she asked one of her sisters to carry a note to the bishop from her. The note said "Where is God?" Mother Teresa had been left in an almost total darkness and she felt that this bishop could help her to understand the apparent absence of God. The darkness and aridity did not sway Mother Teresa in the least from her mission to the poor. And she remained absolutely faithful to her practice of beginning every day with a long period of prayer before this God that she could not perceive or hardly imagine.
God calls us. He does not coerce. His call is so subtle that we must listen deeply with faith. The measure to which he respects our freedom is the measure of the subtlety of his call. Say you want a child to learn to do something by himself. You are willing to help him, but only if it is necessary. The more you help him, the less he will learn to do by himself. The Lord leaves us in darkness sometimes so that we will learn to trust, to go on in faith, to continue even though we cannot see our way, like Abraham leading the son that he loved to the sacrifice. The Lord knew that Mother Teresa was capable of a heroic endurance of faith, so he left her in darkness for fifty years. Was that inconsiderate of him? No! Surely that was the making of this great saint, and God loved her so much that he did it, even though it must have pained him.
It is an interesting coincidence that Stalin uttered the words, "The Pope? How many divisions does he have?" on May 13th 1935. May 13th is the feast of Our Lady of Fatima. In Fatima, Mary told the children that Russia would spread her errors throughout the world but that it would one day be converted. The collapse of the communist bloc came about as a direct result of the election of Pope John Paul II. His visits as Pontiff to his native Poland led to the formation of the Solidarity Trade Union, a peaceful campaign for democracy and the eventual collapse of the communist regime in Poland. The rest of the Soviet Union fell soon afterwards like a house of cards. The Pope had no divisions or tanks, but the "Pope of Fatima", as John Paul is often called, was the catalyst for the end of the evil system that had been put in place by Stalin.
Our Lord is working powerfully in history even though he seems to keep a low profile among the Trumps and Merkels of our age. His power is subtle, because it seeks to enhance our freedom. The Lord of history is a Lord who wishes to restore us as
images of Jesus in whose image we were once originally made. In order to become true children of God, we must be given the space to learn to exercise our freedom responsibly. The measure to which our Lord keeps a low profile might just be the measure to which he loves us and desires our good.