Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 8:00 a.m., November 1st, 1755. Destination: Lisbon, Portugal. A bustling port city and capital of Portugal, Lisbon was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in Europe. It boasted one of the biggest ports on the Atlantic Ocean, and for 250 years the city overflowed with riches from around the world: spices from Indonesia, Persian rugs, Japanese silk, porcelain from China, and gold and gems from the mines of Brazil. The Tagus River that flows through the town and into the sea boasted grand villas built by the merchant barons. The merchants weren’t the only ones who found Lisbon to be fertile soil for their endeavors: the Jesuits were a prominent influence as well, running all manners of education up to and including the Sacred College with nearly 300 consecrated religious. Lisbon’s seven hills were home to numerous chapels, churches, monasteries, and convents, some lavishly designed and decorated. Every home had its own shrine of religious articles passed down from generation to generation, and the more wealthy families even had their own private reliquaries. The streets were adorned with crucifixes and statues of saints, and people would sing religious songs in the streets. Feast days of the Church were celebrated with city-wide celebrations, shop closings, and joyous festivals. So on this day, All Saints’ Day, it would be of no surprise to see the majority of the town lighting candles in their homes before heading off to morning Mass.
The day was crisp and clear, and started like any other. Until, that is, 9:45 a.m. As most Lisbons were celebrating Mass, the ground began to shake. Small tremors got bigger and bigger until the churches turned into mass graves as the gilded arches and adorned roofs toppled down on those inside. Many who escaped fled the buildings and ran to the safety of the riverbanks. The six-minute earthquake, which is estimated to have been between a 9 and 10 on the Richter scale, equivalent to 32,000 Hiroshima bombs, triggered a vast tsunami that sucked much of the water out of the Tagus River and out to sea. Waves as high as 66 feet hit the north coast of Africa, and reports of tsunami-generated waves were reported as far away as Iceland, Barbados, and even Brazil. About 40 minutes after the water left the Tagus, it came rushing back in the form of a 30-foot tall wall of water. Many who gathered on the riverbanks for safety were swept out to sea as the water receded. What was left of Lisbon was now burning, since the earthquake toppled over the candles in people’s homes, setting blaze to the buildings that remained. About 40,000 people died in less than an hour.
As in the wake of any tragedy, the people began to ask the age-old question: “Where is God?”
To answer that question for the people of Lisbon, one needs to look a little deeper, below the surface of the shrines and the churches and the statues. While the surface of Lisbon appeared devout, the heart of Lisbon was anything but. It was home to every kind of vice, organized crime, and arranged murders that happened with such frequency that people accepted them as part of everyday life. Women wore velvet corsets and lace chokers that dangled gold crucifixes into their cleavage, advertising the one commodity that Lisbon was most well known for: sins of the flesh. STD’s were so rampant that there was practically no difference between a brothel and a convent. The people of Lisbon wanted it both ways: they wanted the promise of Heaven while they partied with the Devil. After the earthquake, one of the Jesuit priests preached the hard truth, the truth they didn’t want to hear, and in response he was put to death. People quickly abandoned their faith, and Portugal became the most secular nation in the world. Until, that is, Our Lady came to Fatima in 1917.
Here in the United States, is it any different than it was in Lisbon in 1755? Every time there is a tragedy, be it in Dayton, or El Paso, or Las Vegas, or anywhere else, people ask that same question: “Where is God?”
So, where is God, exactly? The same place He was for the Lisbons. Exactly where we, as a society, have left Him: outside of our hearts and outside of our lives. We’ve taken Him out of our classrooms, out of the locker rooms, and out of the city square. We’ve chiseled him off our courthouses, blaspheme, question, and mock Him in movies and music, and open our arms to the culture of death. People want to take “In God We Trust” off our currency, replace “Christmas” with “Holiday”, and brazenly mock His promise to Noah. We show our respect for God (or lack thereof) every time people show up to Mass thirty minutes late and dressed like they’re going to a rock concert, every time people receive the body, blood, soul and Divinity of our Lord while chewing gum, and every time they don’t even bother to remove their baseball hat when they enter the Church. Crucifixes have become nothing more than fashion statements, worn shamelessly by people who advertise their sins. We are partying with the Devil and expecting to go to Heaven, we profane and defile what we are supposed to keep sacred, then when bad things happen we have the nerve to ask, “Where is God?”
When we allow the light of God to be removed from our lives, His light is replaced with the darkness of sin and wickedness. When we as a society turn our backs on God, He — as a God of infinite justice — has no obligation to give us anything. Only when we realize that only when we as a society return God and His light to its proper place in our hearts and lives, only then will we never have to ask the question, “Where is God?”