In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote that “last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.” If he were alive today, what verses would Eliot use to describe 2019?
As any year in recorded history, there were moments of grace and moments of turmoil. And it started off badly. On January 1, the year’s first mass shooting occurred at the University Village Shopping Center in Tallahassee, Florida, where five were injured. Gun violence, in fact, plagued the nation for the rest of the year.
According to the nonprofit research group Gun Violence Archive, as of September 1, mass shootings were outpacing the number of days in the year. But January wasn’t finished. A scant 24 days later, a dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine in Brazil ruptured, creating a mudflow that killed 248 people.
Hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, and floods made their presence known as well. There were, however, shards of light for us to savor this year. Social media giant Facebook was ordered to pay a record $5 billion penalty to the Federal Trade Commission in July over allegations of privacy offenses. And users reacted accordingly: Social media actions such as posts, comments, and likes on the site dropped by 20 percent.
The first quarter of 2019 also produced good news in environmental and conservation initiatives: eco-drones that successfully planted thousands of saplings in open fields; public schools instituting “meatless Mondays” to combat climate change; and global e-commerce giant Etsy becoming the first to offset carbon emissions from its shipping practices. Sadly, these were only sugar highs.
But the 24-hour news cycle is an unrelenting machine—and much of it centered on President Donald Trump and his administration. In April, Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller released a 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. A month later, the government’s 25 percent tariff hike on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports took effect, worsening tensions between the two nations.
The year also saw historical and pop-culture anniversaries. Fifty years have passed since American astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin walked on the moon, Woodstock entertained 350,000 music lovers, Sesame Street debuted on PBS, The Godfather engrossed readers, and moviegoers fell in love with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
A Church in Crisis
The Catholic Church has had a mercurial year as well. We started 2019 mourning the previous December’s shooting inside Our Lady of the Conception Cathedral in Brazil, in which four people were killed. But we also celebrated Catholic Relief Services’ 75 years of lifesaving work, as well as the continuing sainthood causes of Catholic luminaries Augustus Tolton and Thea Bowman.
But it was the sex-abuse crisis that truly dominated Catholic news this year. The grand jury investigation of clergy sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses started in 2016 and was released in 2018, but its tendrils reached far into this year. The report documented the abuse of more than 1,000 minors by 301 priests and religious over a 70-year period.
Last February, during a four-day summit at the Vatican, which included 190 Catholic leaders, Pope Francis called abusive priests “ravenous wolves” and demanded greater diligence among Church leaders to protect minors and weed out offenders.
Two months later, in April, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors met in Rome for three days, where members discussed procedures to protect minors. That topic was also at the forefront of the US bishops’ meeting the following June in Baltimore, in which a message was conveyed from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Vatican’s nuncio to the United States. While assuring bishops that actionable measures would be taken, he could promise no expediency with those measures.
“In an ecclesial context,” he said, “faster responses do not always produce the best results.” But the overwhelming response to the Church’s often glacial progress in protecting our most vulnerable is this: Survivors deserve better. We, the Church, demand it.
‘Let Us Begin Again’
The true breakout star of 2019 has to be Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist who, in September, scolded the United Nations for their lethargy in combating global warming. Her words, often rising to a howl, addressed our collective apathy. But her viral message inspired something adults often struggle with—action. After her fiery oration at the United Nations, student strikes took place throughout the world. This year alone, over one million students have protested in her honor. That should inspire even the most jaded.
It was, from every angle possible, a difficult year. As we look toward the horizon of 2020, what wisdom can we carry with us? Perhaps we can start with the words of St. Francis of Assisi: “Let us begin again, brothers, for up until now, we have done little or nothing.”