by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
Recently, I was listening to a radio interview with a college theology professor at a major university who described himself as an agnostic. He had been raised in an evangelical Christian family. He lost his faith over the problem of suffering. Sometimes this problem of suffering is summarized with a question: Why do bad
things happen to good people? This professor of theology could not reconcile a belief in an all-loving God with the prevalence of suffering in the world.
Indeed, this is a serious issue for any person of faith. For this final column devoted to the Passion, I want to consider God’s response to the problem of suffering which is to be found on Calvary.
In 1984 Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter entitled, “On the Christian Meaning of Suffering.” In this letter, our late Holy Father acknowledged the mystery of human suffering and the natural question of those experiencing it and of those who love the one who is suffering: Why?
The Holy Father notes that suffering is a manifestation of evil. It was not part of God’s original design for humanity. All human suffering is in some way the fruit of man’s rebellion against God.
Sometimes, we can see a direct correlation between sin and the suffering it creates in one’s own life. Yet, perhaps more often than not, seemingly innocent people suffer because of the sin of others. We can find examples of this in the daily paper with the reports of victims of violent crimes. My own father was the victim of murder almost 60 years ago. He was in no way responsible for the evil inflicted upon him by his attacker. Nor did my mother have any responsibility for this crime that made her a young widow with the responsibility of raising two young children by herself.
Throughout history, we find countless examples where innocent people suffer because of the sin of others — those enslaved, civilian victims of war, prisoners in concentration camps, etc. There is another and even larger class of those who suffer innocently, not because of the crime or evil action of another, but as victims of debilitating and painful illnesses or natural disasters.
The Book of Job in the Old Testament reflects on the problem of suffering and rejects the prevalent theology of the time that believed all human suffering was directly related to the sin of the one suffering or perhaps one of his immediate ancestors. We find this flawed theology still prevalent in the time of Jesus.
In St. John’s Gospel, before Jesus heals the man who was blind from birth, his disciples ask him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2). The Passion and crucifixion of Jesus is a definitive refutation that suffering is always or even most times caused by the personal sin of the one suffering. On Calvary, Jesus, by his faithfulness, reversed the disobedience of Adam, immersing himself in the principal effects of sin — suffering and death.
One of the most famous and confusing lines of the crucifixion narrative is the cry of Jesus from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). Many New Testament scholars point out that Jesus is quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22 which describes many of the details and circumstances of Jesus’ Passion and crucifixion.
These scholars believe Jesus was actually pointing his disciples to that psalm’s prophecy of his fate, as well as the beautiful profession of faith at its conclusion.
Other scholars believe that this cry of despair was a manifestation of the complete humanity of Jesus. In other words, the Lord experienced the same sense of desperation and abandonment that so many have felt at moments of illness or intense suffering.
Pope John Paul proposed that this verse holds the key to what St. Paul meant when he wrote: “For our sake he (God the Father) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin.” Our late Holy Father wrote: “Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the entire evil of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of his filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through this suffering He accomplishes the Redemption, and can say as He breathes His last: It is finished” (no. 18).
Jesus invites his disciples to share in the mystery of redemption by sharing in his cross. Pope John Paul pointed out that several of the great saints experienced conversions in the midst of great physical suffering (e.g., St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius of Loyola). These saints not only discovered a salvific meaning in suffering, but they became totally new individuals.
In my priestly ministry, I have met many individuals who found the capacity to embrace tremendous human suffering with faith and love. They radiated a peace, a hope and a joy for which there was no human explanation. Pope John Paul summarizes the effect of those who have found the redemptive power of suffering: “When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal” (no. 26).
Human suffering is also a tool for what Pope John Paul describes as unleashing love in the human person. Our late Holy Father cites the parable of the good Samaritan as a model for the response of the disciple of Jesus when confronted with the suffering of another. Fortunately, we find many examples of this, where the suffering of others will spark a response of heroic love.
The instinctual response of almost every person, when confronted with the burden of suffering, is to protest and ask the question of God: Why? Pope John Paul observed that the Christian has this same natural response, but the disciple of Jesus, in making his protests, notices: “That the One to whom he puts the question is himself suffering and wishes to answer him from the cross, from the heart of his own suffering” (no. 26).
Our late Holy Father believed the answer to this question becomes an invitation. He wrote that Jesus addresses us in our suffering saying: “Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross! Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed to him.”
As we conclude this Lenten season, let us do so in awe as we contemplate the miracle of love to be found in the image of the crucified Jesus. In prayer before the cross of Jesus, let us ask the Lord to unlock for us the meaning and the power of whatever suffering we may bear at this time in our lives. Let us petition the Lord for the grace to be able to embrace our crosses with the faith and the love he manifested on Calvary.