• 59°

A challenge of titanic proportions

By Fr. Jonathan Filkins

As the giant vessel slid slowly down the amply greased Belfast slipways of the Harland and Wolff shipbuilders, so did the confidence in her unsinkable design and profligate superiority as she smoothly entered the deep, dark waters. Soon outfitted with the finest materials and made ready for sea, the largest moving manmade object ever created entered service in the North Atlantic.

It was all made ready for the maiden voyage to America. Streaming ever westward, there was a schedule to keep, as both the onboard luminaries and the line’s management expected a prompt conclusion to the initial effort. There was every confidence this would occur. After all, had not mankind mastered nature and eliminated the challenges of many perils?

With advanced speed, on a moonless, flat-calm night, this leviathan of the sea struck an iceberg with a glancing blow, separating the riveted hull plates for nearly 300 feet. In two and one-half hours, even though the total breach to the icy waters was only eleven square feet, the pumps could not keep up and the Titanic slid to the seafloor, some 12,000 feet below. In spite of the efforts of the engineers and designers there were too-few lifeboats. The decision to only meet the legal minimums was the direct causation of over 1500 deaths.

Even today, well over a century in the passing, we attribute significant events, in both our communal and individual lives as something “titanic.” The loss of a loved one; the end of a relationship; the seemingly unfettered onslaught of health and financial headwinds bespeak to the apparently significant obstacles in our paths. Indeed, in spite of all of our best engineering, we may not have the results we seek

Seventy-four years later, the confidence in human design had not abated. No longer tied to this terrestrial world, we had been exploring the starry skies above. As we had progressed, the launching of spacecraft was becoming a bit of a yawner. After all, we had been to the Moon seventeen years earlier and were now tossing something above our heads, only a few hundred miles up. The networks stopped reporting it as important news, and we, the populace, were rather disinterested. It all came to an abrupt and jarring end.

In the early morning hours, on a below-freezing January morning, the giant rocket ship ignited the 16 million horsepower engines without incident. Soon after clearing the launch tower, a small leak began developing at a seal in the solid rocket booster. Eventually burning away, the entirety of the craft erupted in an enormous fireball. The unfolding sequence of the events was graphically recorded for all to see. It was frequently said that the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger, was a disaster of “titanic proportions.”

There are all-too-regular moments when hubris overshadows humility. A teenager drives too fast, a middle-age worker ignores their doctor’s advice, and a soon-to-be retired suddenly realizes they only have a pittance to aid them in the Fall of their lives. These, and so many other

challenges may have truly titanic repercussions, no matter how well planned our designs and their execution.

As Christians, we are to accept the reality of our flawed designs and overconfidence in our abilities to overcome them. As with the Titanic and the Challenger disasters, the best minds of the day were instrumental in their success; as well as their loss. While the machines were only that, their precious cargo was grievously lost. We may be sure there shall be future calamities of similar ilk.

We are all called to mitigate this reality. Parenting, prudence, patience and perseverance beget reasoned behaviors and choices. The Apostle John said, “We are of God: he that knows God hears us; he that is not of God does not hear us. Hereby we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.”

Consider the titanic challenge of putting our egos in check and more fully understanding our own errors. It may be, just may be, we overextend ourselves with far too great regularity.