(Published in the blog of the Magis Center on July 28)
This month, the world got to watch a public service announcement released by New York City’s emergency management office. It offers steps to take when a nuclear attack has occurred. News reports suggested that this message—dealing indirectly with one of the “third rails” of public discourse, namely death– left many of its viewers concerned, or at least confused.
I will not try to read the minds of the PSA’s producers or audiences. My reaction focuses on an axiom I learned as a member of the Knights of Columbus, an international fraternal organization that seeks to build up and activate the spiritual lives of Catholic men. The Knights included in their instructions a simple two-word Latin phrase: “Memento Mori” or “Remember Death.”
As a 2020 article from Catholic Digest discusses, the somber reminder tells us that meditating upon one’s mortality and the prospect of death can be a clarifying exercise for the mind and heart.
With help from the PSA, New Yorkers can contemplate a sobering piece of “bad news,” or at least the fact that various forms of very bad news can and do arise in everyday life. Let’s be fair to the city’s office of emergency preparedness. They dwell much less on the tragedy of a nuclear attack than on the tactics for surviving that attack.
The announcement is still flawed, in my opinion, because it offers simplified tips centered on going indoors, staying indoors, and monitoring updates and advice from the government. Our presenter closes with encouraging words: “You’ve got this.”
I wonder whether that is so. If a blackout ensues, for example, can the population access such media as the “Notify NYC” website the presenter promotes? Isn’t this false hope?
I find nothing false, hopeless, or simplified about the Church’s alternative approach to the ultimate “bad news.” We know that, without the acknowledgment and anticipation of evil occurrences, people will not appreciate how good the “Good News” really is. I refer to the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ and the path toward happiness in this life and in eternal life.
Our reflections on the “four last things”—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—help to see the high stakes in our worldly existence. They add a sense of purpose and urgency to our decisions and behaviors. They suggest that we must ground our lives in truth and practical wisdom (phronesis!).
They also add clarity and extra dimensions of hope and wonderment when we turn to John 3:16 and read that God the Father wants to give us eternal life through His son; Christ accompanies us as we work out our salvation with a loving embrace of the Holy Spirit’s gifts.
These empowering instruments for the survivability of individuals and the whole human race are sure things. We must understand and use them well, so the Bible and the Church have provided limitless information on what to do and why.
Much of this time-tested information comes in bite-size pieces, resembling prophetic PSAs, if only we will pay attention. The virtues and resources described are valuable in good times and bad, they ease our fear rather than kindle it, and they do not shut down in power outages.
This leads me to one additional reaction, in the form of a suggestion. Those seeking to evangelize the culture, enriching its survivability through timely and timeless insights, should think more like journalists—at least in one sense. Memorable messages for spiritual growth often have a “news hook” that works like this: “Did you see x? Our faith and reason teach us this can mean y. Therefore, let’s do z.”
Religious leaders, please seize the opportunity to mention New York’s recent PSA jeremiad, encourage people to view and ponder it, and then offer more meaningful, reasonable instruction and conversation. Let’s talk about what we are saying—through our governments’ strategies and our global situations. Let’s consider the real messages about our fragility and responsibility.
Our faith is relevant to the end-times and to any personal “end time” that disrupts our lives. We need saintly guides and solid guidance to help us act upon the most enduring truths, including the four final truths. Otherwise, “blind guides” will offer only odd little tidbits of fact that strand us as demigods in idle seclusion, waiting for updates.
(Image from ClipSafari.com, a collection of Creative Commons designs.)