"This," says Father Bill Joy, heaving a sigh and struggling t put words around the thing that is happening half a world away, "is one more test of human faith. I don't know how else to explain it."
All he knows for certain is what he reads in the newspaper, or watches on his television: the faces of the needlessly dying in Somalia. No one can explain this in terms of God's will, or religion, or morality, not even a priest. It is simply the suffering of the innocent, and bringing help is all that matters now.
So Father Joy's bags are packed at St. Jerome's Rectory, near Camden Yards, and his plane is to leave today for Somalia. Catholic Relief Services is sending him there to . . . well, he's not exactly certain what he'll do.
He's headed for a country he's never seen, to conditions of danger still uncertain, to a spot on a map he cannot even spell without consulting his travel papers. It's Baidoa, west of Mogadishu, where thousands of U.S. troops have been landing.
In Baidoa, scores of people have died in recent clan warfare, and reports of fighting and violence have increased in recent days. American soldiers are hoping to secure an airstrip there so relief flights can land safely.
In Baltimore, Father Joy sits in a little office, at the commencement of the holiday buying season in lush America, and wonders about the world he's entering.
"I'd be less than honest," he says, "if I didn't admit to trepidation."
In 20 years in the priesthood, the 46-year-old Father Joy has been to Africa before, and he's seen suffering there.
But the field reports arriving these past months from Catholic Relief Services in Somalia indicate some previously untapped level of human pain there.
"Our people in Somalia," he says, "are talking about the worst human tragedy they've ever seen. And these are people who have seen suffering on the grand scale."
"The stories are terrible," adds Jack Morgan, spokesman for Catholic Relief Services, who's also scheduled to embark from Baltimore for Somalia today.
"We had one report of a Somalian woman arriving at a feeding center after walking across open country for two or three days," he says. "She had children who died along the way, and a husband who died or was killed. And she arrived destitute, starving, but alive."
L "The stories simply take your breath away," says Father Joy.
Also, it moves all who believe in some overseeing God, some moral compass guiding the path of human events, to wonder how such suffering can happen.
"Yes," Father Joy says softly, "it challenges your faith, it puts it to the test. It makes you ask: Is there hope for goodness in the world? But, especially in this season, we must have hope, and we've been given an opportunity to show that individuals can help."
These are just words, a groping in the dark for some explanation for the inexplicable. Faith works that way. Through humanity's -- endless history of cruelty, we cling to this notion of a God who not only watches over us, but cares what happens.
"Somalia raises legitimate questions about God, about faith," Father Joy says. "At times like this, people do ask, 'Where is God?' But that's the test of faith. The suffering is a terrible thing, but we all have suffering of a kind. It's a needless suffering, yes, but so is the crashing of an airplane.
"These things challenge my faith, and any believing person's. We don't have all the answers."
In Baidoa, Father Joy hopes to hook up with existing relief units and help dispense supplies. Already, Catholic Relief Services says it has distributed about 3,000 metric tons of grain to about 180,000 Somalis.
"We've been lucky," says Morgan. "There have been a few
incidents of armed guys taking truckloads of food. Sometimes they'll just take the food, and sometimes the whole truck. But about 95 percent of our food has actually reached its destination."
Maybe there's the fine hand of some unseen moral compass at work. In Somalia, says Father Joy, faith is sustained in tiny, unexpected moments.
"We're hearing of villages rebuilding and replanting," he says, "and people returned to them who had gone away. And there are reports of crops coming through the soil. That's symbolic of something, isn't it?"
For Father Joy, preparing for his first Christmas away from home, it will have to do for the moment.