Sunday, February 08, 2009

Salvifici Doloris and the Question: “Why Suffering?”

(5th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 8 February, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Job 7:1-7 and Mark 1:29-39)

It was a beautiful spring day in 1981 when our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, was riding through St. Peter’s Square, just as he had done a hundred times before, and as he would do—thanks be to God—hundreds of times after that. But on that particular day, May 13, 1981, as you may well remember, John Paul was shot at nearly point blank range by an assassin. He would later say that “one hand fired the gun, but another one guided the bullet,” for it was on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, to whom the Holy Father attributed his miraculous survival, that the assassination attempt occurred (see George Weigel, Witness to Hope).

But it was more than just the bullet that nearly took the life of John Paul II. He also received a tainted blood transfusion in the hospital, which did considerable damage to his already weakened body. It would be several long weeks of recovery and many long months of physical and even emotional suffering, as well, before he was finally able to return to a sense of “normalcy.”

A few years later he met with his attacker, face to face, and forgave him. A few weeks after that encounter, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Pope John Paul II released what was perhaps his most personal Apostolic Letter ever written, Salvifici Doloris, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.

In that letter, John Paul reflects on the problem of evil and the question of suffering. He ponders a question which every one of us has asked at one point or another; perhaps we are even asking it now. That question, of course, is: Why?

Why, if God is all good and all powerful, is there evil in the world we live in?

Why is there suffering in my life and in the lives of those close to me?

Why do the people I love suffer?

Of course, one of the best known persons in all of Scripture to ask that question is the one we hear from in our first reading this morning: Job. Job has encountered unspeakable suffering. He has lost members of his family, his property, his own physical health; he experiences the spiritual suffering of one who has lost the sense of God in his life. He feels alone and in the dark and simply wants to know where God is through all of this sorrow. He laments in that first reading:

Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery?...I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me…the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn…I shall not see happiness again.
—Job 7:1-7

We are probably all familiar with the complete story of Job, how his friends come to comfort him in his suffering. They had very good intentions; initially they were so overwhelmed by the suffering of their friend that none of them said a single word for seven days. They sat with him in solidarity and silence…and then they figured it all out!

Their basic conclusion was that suffering comes as a result of sin. Job was suffering, so he must have done something to offend God. Therefore, he simply needed to repent and that would clear things up. Books have been written critiquing their counsel, but we would do well not to dismiss their logic too quickly. Job’s friends stand on solid theological ground when they connect suffering with sin.

All throughout the Old Testament, and right on into the New Testament, we find stories of men and women who suffer because of the sins that they have committed. We can look at our own lives and see the times we have said or done something we knew was wrong, we knew was a sin, and then suffered the consequences of that decision. Perhaps we have done nothing wrong, but we suffer because of the sins of those around us who have made terrible decisions. There is no solid reason for us to say that suffering and sin are not connected.

But the problem with Job’s friends, of course, is that when they make that connection in Job’s case, they’re wrong! We know that he is innocent. We have already been told that in the prologue, before all his suffering occurs. So that connection between suffering and sin, while certainly a credible and understandable one, cannot be applied across the board. It is, of itself, inadequate to explain all the suffering in the world we live in.

Ultimately, says John Paul II, suffering remains a mystery. We will not be able to answer all our questions about suffering here in this life. But to say something is a mystery is not to say that we cannot find meaning in it.

God is a mystery. We can never completely “figure out” God or find all the answers to our questions about Him on this side of heaven. But we can know Him. We can love Him and be loved by Him, and that is the context in which Pope John Paul II situates his reflection in the mystery of human suffering:

In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of meaning of everything that exists.
—John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, #13

God saw the suffering and the pain in the world He created, and He chose to come to us in the midst of it. Think about how different that is from the choices so many people make, especially in our present culture. They look at all that is wrong with the world, and all the suffering, and say, “I would never want to bring a child into this world.” God looks at all the suffering and everything that is wrong around us and says, “I must be born into that world. I must come and respond to those who are suffering and who find themselves in sorrow and distress. I will come to them.”

This is what we find in the gospel this morning. Jesus Christ comes among His own people and begins to respond to all the needs of the sick and suffering at St. Peter’s house. We are told that, after healing St. Peter’s mother-in-law, “they brought to him all who were ill or possessed by demons. The whole town was gathered at the door” (Mark 1:32-34). Christ was healing all those who came to Him; he cured body and soul. But at one point, we discover, He ceased to do so. He withdrew, by Himself, to a quiet place and prayed.

The disciples seek Him out, for there were many more in need of healing, and suddenly Jesus shocks them all: we’re leaving! There was something even more important, more pressing, than healing the physical and spiritual diseases of the people at St. Peter’s house. Christ tells us what it is: “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come” (Mark 1:38).

The ultimate reason Christ has come is not merely to heal the deficiencies and diseases of this earthly life. He comes also because there is an even greater sickness and suffering that we all share: the possibility of a life eternally separated from God. Christ has come to restore the most fundamental and devastating disease of humanity: the loss of eternal life.

To heal that rift—caused by our first parents, Adam and Eve, and perpetuated by our own personal sins—Christ will willingly suffer and die on the cross. Now we can have a new life with God once again. We can be healed of that eternal loss and come to share eternity with the God who redeems us. That is the purpose for which Christ has come. That is the message that he takes with Him to all the surrounding towns and villages. It is the message he teaches to His disciples, and the message of the gospel proclaimed in the Church for 2,000 years.

This truth of our redemption, says John Paul II, is also the key to understanding the mystery of suffering. He says “in the cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed” (Salvifici Doloris, #19). Our suffering, which had always been“drudgery,” a burden only, and a meaningless “misery,” can now find meaning in light of the sufferings of Christ.

Christ comes into our lives to help us carry our crosses, and He in turn allows us a share in His own cross, His own redemptive act of love that transforms the world we live in. This is not automatic; it is not something that happens in an instant or through one decision or one circumstance in life. It happens over the course of our lives, and through consciously sharing in a living relationship with God.

But we who share in the sufferings of Christ, and who participate in His redemption, will also share His resurrection (Philippians 3:10-11; Colossians 1:24). How has that message changed our lives and the way we look at the world around us? How has the message of the gospel, which Christ held to be the most important task and the purpose for his coming among us, changed us and transformed the way live?

May we come to understand our own lives, and even our own sufferings, more completely in the light of the mystery of divine love that God has revealed among us, and may we proclaim with Job the words of hope that were spoken by him in anticipation of the saving grace of God, who never forgets the ones He has created and loves:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth.
—Job 19:25