In those countries that were once called Catholic, an ancient Gregorian chant that begins Te Deum laudamus (Holy God, We Praise Thy Name is a familiar English version) was sung on occasions of great public rejoicingthe ending of a war or the crowning of a king. It is still sung in many cathedrals on Dec. 31 as a hymn of thanksgiving for the blessings of the departing year. That custom is eminently appropriate, for God has an irrevocable right to our adoration and gratitude. Moreover, in giving thanks creatures are themselves benefited. It has been wisely said that offering thanks to God is an antidote for depression. In many ways 2005 has been a depressing year.
Of course, that remedy is available only to believers, but it would surely be useful this month when many people are saying to themselves: Goodbye, old year. We’re glad to see you go!
Even Pollyanna, if she had been reading newspapers during 2005, would have had trouble finding global events about which to feel glad. The passage of time may change perspectives, but it is likely that 2005 will be remembered at least partly for its disasters. Natural calamities of incomprehensible size began with a tsunami in Asia five days before 2005 arrived and piled up in subsequent months with Hurricane Katrina and its parallel in Guatemala, followed by the earthquake in Pakistan. Set beside these earthly convulsions were the human decisions that opened depths of darkness during the wars in Iraq and Sudan. Finally, in this year as in any year, there were the tribulations of millions of anonymous people who were tempted to echo the psalmist’s morose judgment: Most of our years are emptiness and pain (Ps 90).
All the same, the depressing pages were not the only ones even on the international scene. The catastrophes scattered across the world from Sumatra to New Orleans were followed by an outpouring of humanitarian compassion from national governments and individual good Samaritans. In its infinite wisdom, Divine Providence did not prevent the tectonic plates beneath the Indian Ocean from twitching on Dec. 26, 2004, but in its infinite gifts of grace that same Providence inspired thousands of human hearts to aid the suffering.
For many people, at least in the prosperous nations, 2005 was no doubt a good year. Generous young men and women, buoyed up by high ideals, married and looked joyfully forward to life together. Aging couples serenely celebrated the golden jubilee of just such a life together. New children were born and older ones matured. In the arts and sciences, in the professions, crafts and businesses, gifted and industrious workers labored to make the world more humane for all.
Final judgment on the year that is ending must wait until the end of time, but there fits in here a comment made by Phillips Brooks, the 19th-century Episcopal priest who wrote the Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. The checkerboard of life, he said, is made up of some black squares on a white background, not white squares on basic black. Pessimists may dismiss this claim as rubbish. Christians will appreciate its encouragement, because they believe that ultimately the good will triumph.
As they make their way into a new year, Christians are fortified by the virtue of hope. They may also be inspirited by the voices of those who preceded them. Here are two from a multitude that might be quoted. One is the voice of the universal church gathered for a council. The other is the individual voice of a woman who was both a saint and a great writer.
In Gaudium et Spes, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council said in 1965 that Christians must be committed to the service of the human community (No. 31). It also said, in one of its most quoted sentences: The expectation of a new earth must not weaken but stimulate our concern for cultivating this one (No. 57).
In The Way of Perfection (1579), St. Teresa of ávila was speaking to 16th-century cloistered Carmelite nuns, but she made a point that all Christians should take seriously: God deliver us, sisters, from saying We are not angels,’ or We are not saints....’ We may not be; but what a good thing it is for us to reflect that we can be if we will only try and if God gives us his hand.
She did not say that God will not fail to extend his hand, for she took it for granted that her listeners already knew that.