In the end, her body proved defenseless against a virulent strain of meningitis. It attacked her suddenly and swiftly. My beloved granddaughter Penelope Grace Deely, who was only two-and-one-half years old, was dead within thirty-six hours.
My daughter Genevieve and her husband John were at a loss to know how they would make their way through their pain and loss. My youngest daughter Christine raised the question of unanswered prayer in connection with sweet Penny’s death. Why would God not answer the prayers of so many people for Penny’s life? Does unanswered prayer count against the love of God?
The Crucial Question
That is the crucial question. All things considered, unanswered prayer does not count against the love of God, for the fundamental reason that our lament has already been answered in the Cross of Jesus Christ and through His resurrection.
This is not the answer we want, but it is the only answer we have that puts our Penny’s death in a right and hopeful perspective. “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us. Christ has risen, destroying death by His death,” Gaudium et spes says.
Still, how do I answer the spiritual perplexity occasioned by this question, not just for my daughter Christine, and others like her who have this vexing question, but for myself? We walk by faith and not by sight, St. Paul tells us (2 Corinthians 5: 7). We see through a glass darkly; we know in part (1 Corinthians 13: 12). One implication of this limitation is that I do not know the answer to the question of why this child died.
This child who was loved unconditionally and deeply. This child who responded unconditionally to her mother and father, Genevieve and John, with an equally deep love. This child, who was blond, with green/hazel tinted eyes, and to all who knew her was beautiful, amazing, a gift, and full of promise. This child, my Penelope, whose actual voice I will never hear again in this life. This child, who is unrepeatable, one of her kind, irreplaceable, leaves us with a hole in reality that will never be filled.
I am perplexed, but not troubled. My resolute belief in the goodness of a loving God, of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not shaken by the death of my beloved Penelope. I know who God is, and the Holy Bible tells me several things that help me through my perplexity.
A Confession of Faith
What follows is a confession of faith, a reflection on certain truths that I cannot hold together in one rational synthesis. The truths of faith “are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §89).
The first truth I know is that death is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15: 26). Jesus himself assures us that “little children” belong to the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16).
I have the consolation that Penny is at peace because she is in the presence of the Lord, seeing the face of God. What also brings consolation is the well-grounded hope that by God’s merciful grace when I stand before him I will hear him say to me , “Come quickly, your granddaughter Penelope eagerly awaits you.”
The second truth I know is that I cannot find in the death of little children, in the death of this child, Penelope, an ultimate meaning or purpose. I hold with the Christian tradition that God’s goodness and providence can be defended even in the face of evil and suffering, but it also tells me that radical evil is rationally inscrutable. The unfathomable depths to evil — evils likethe death of my beloved Penelope —are only answered by Christ’s cross and resurrection.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe that death and evil have the last word. Life is not meaningless, a matter of blind fate, or wild chance. The Gospel brings us the good news that God’s will cannot ultimately be defeated. Indeed, it assures me that Christ has already won the victory of evil and death — and hence victory over Penelope’s death — through His Cross and Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15: 54-55). I trust in this truth with everything that is in me.
God Will Make All Things New
The third truth I know is that as Christians we live in anticipation of the day when God will make all things new (Revelation 21:5). God will dwell with His people, “wiping away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Revelation 21:3-4).
For now, we must pick up our cross and follow Christ to his death on the Cross and His resurrection. We know that life not death has the last word. We have the promise (2 Corinthians 12:9) that His grace is sufficient to help us carry the burden of this cross of my beloved Penny’s death.
Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. A longer version of this article appeared in Mosaic, the seminary’s magazine. Among his articles are “The Gospel of Redemptive Suffering: Reflections on John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris”. His book Redemptive Suffering will be published this fall by Lectio Publishing.