A Catholic Monthly Magazine

A November Thought — the Bottom Line

Fr Tom Ryan SM

A few years ago, a death notice caught my eye. It was for a man whose wife I had known since I was at high school (let’s call them Mary and John). They’d been married for over fifty years and had a family. In that time, we enjoyed keeping in touch. In recent years, John had battled cancer. That did not stop him. He finished a doctorate. Finally, the cancer caught up with him.

I sent Mary an email after seeing the obituary, saying what I admired in John and about them as a couple. I said I would say Mass for John, her and the family. They were not Catholics and, to my knowledge, not regular Church-goers. 

In her reply, Mary was very grateful. But two phrases struck me: “I feel very humbled that you offered Mass for us,” and “we will all miss him terribly, he was such a kind and caring person.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about those words. I felt free to offer Mass; they both knew who I was and what I believed in. They may not share that faith but clearly what I did meant a lot to Mary.

I felt slightly uneasy about “humbled.” It was almost as if she (and John) did not think they were worthy enough. Is any of us ‘worthy’ enough, really? 

Still, I think I know what Mary was trying to say. She may not share that faith. Nevertheless, she really appreciated that she and John could, somehow, be included in the ‘God-space.’

But the rest of her sentence got me thinking. What’s the ‘bottom line’ in life? In many ways, I guess it’s death. But if, as is true for many people, religious faith or God is not a reality in their lives, what is life’s ‘bottom line’? To use ‘accountant-speak’: when you crunch the numbers, what’s the result, the ‘bottom line’? Is it a credit or a debit? Or, ultimately, that things just don’t add up?

Is that the only sort of calculus we bring to life? Life’s many variables can’t be included in the right or left side of the ledger. True, there’s so much that doesn’t add up: suffering around us, distorted images of God, the blurred face of Christ because Christians don’t live and act as they should; global moral failure in institutions and Churches, especially ours, to protect the innocent and vulnerable.

If Christ’s message has little drawing power, if more people tick ‘no religion’ or ‘atheist’ in a census form, in a way, who can blame them? 

Whatever the reasons, what is life’s bottom line in that situation? Perhaps, it’s in Mary’s phrase “he was such a kind and caring person.” When Mary struggles with her grief and the inevitable questions about death and ‘what’s after,’ I’d say to Mary: “hold on to those few words. That’s not only life’s ‘bottom line.’ It’s also God’s.”

“When you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”

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