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Column: We understand suffering through the prism of the cross

by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

On Saturday, March 6, at Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood, I will celebrate the annual Mass for the sick, sponsored by the Knights of Malta.

Bishop Finn, Archbishop Keleher and Bishop Boland will concelebrate the Mass along with priests from both sides of State Line Road. In the context of the Mass, the sacrament of the anointing of the sick will be administered.

The general introduction for the Ritual for the Pastoral Care of the Sick gives the following description for those who can receive the anointing of the sick: “The Letter of James states that the sick are to be anointed in order to raise them up and save them. Great care and concern should be taken to see that those of the faithful whose health is seriously impaired by sickness or old age receive this sacrament.” A footnote, clarifying who appropriately receives this sacrament, counsels: “On the one hand, the sacrament may and should be given to anyone whose health is seriously impaired; on the other hand, it may not be given indiscriminately or to any person whose health is not seriously impaired.”

For many months, we have all been bombarded with information regarding the public policy debate in our nation pertaining to health care reform. In no way wishing to minimize the importance of this matter, in this article, however, I wish to set aside the public policy and ethical issues related to the physical care of the sick in order to consider the spiritual care of the sick.

Jesus healed many in the Gospels. He heals many today, sometimes through miraculous cures, unexplained by science, and perhaps even more often through the human instruments of medical doctors and the modern science of medicine.

In the church’s process for the recognition of saints, two authenticated miracles are required. The recipient of one of the miracles that was accepted for the recent canonization of St. Jeanne Jugan, the foundress for the Little Sisters of the Poor, occurred in Omaha, Neb., in the 1990s.

Miracles still happen. Although most of them are never officially authenticated by the church, this does not diminish their importance and power in strengthening the faith of those touched in this way by God’s grace. Many people in the Archdiocese have related to me miracles of healing that they or someone in their family have received. We should pray for physical healing for the sick.

However, the primary purpose of Jesus coming to earth was not to provide physical healing that would extend life in this world indefinitely. None of those healed by Jesus in the Gospel are still alive today. Many of them had to endure some future illness, and all of them had to cross, eventually, the threshold of death.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the different ways that we can respond to suffering: “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him” (no. 1501).

Pope John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter entitled: “On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.” In this letter, the late Holy Father acknowledged the mystery of human suffering and the natural question of those experiencing it: Why? Suffering is an expression of evil. It was not part of the Lord’s original design. It is a consequence of sin.

However, the Book of Job in the Old Testament makes clear that the physical suffering of any individual is not to be construed as a result of his or her own personal sin. Of course, the passion and crucifixion of Jesus are the most powerful illustrations of this truth. Jesus, the innocent one, suffers greatly for nothing that he has done.

Jesus came to defeat sin and death, but he does this through the cross. On Calvary, Jesus transformed suffering from meaningless pain to a mystery that contains the power to save others. Pope John Paul wrote: “By his suffering on the cross, Christ reached the very roots of evil, of sin and death. He conquered the author of evil, Satan, and his permanent rebellion against the Creator.”

Jesus was very honest with his disciples. He makes no promises that they will be immune to human suffering. In fact, just the opposite. Jesus tells his disciples that if they follow him, they must share in the cross. Jesus invites his disciples to unite their suffering with his suffering.

Pope John Paul II observed that people react to suffering in different ways, but still there is for most of us an instinctual protest. Our late Holy Father wrote: “It can be said that almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question ‘why.’” The pope described how the Christian discovers Christ’s answer to this question: “He (the sick person) cannot help noticing 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.” The disciples of Jesus come to the realization that Jesus invites them to become a sharer in his own salvific suffering.

In Pope John Paul’s estimation, the answer of Jesus to the question of suf- fering is actually an invitation. Jesus invites those suffering: “Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Though 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.”

Understood through the prism of the cross, we begin to realize the power in human suffering when united with Jesus and embraced with faith and love. The ability of the Christian to endure suffering, while preserving in his spirit peace, hope and even joy, becomes a tool for evangelization drawing others to Jesus. Our peace and joy, in the midst of our suffering, actually magnifies the authenticity of our faith. It provokes those around us to desire the source of our hope and joy.

We also believe that suffering offered as a prayer for others has a unique power to effect change and transformation in those for whom we offer this most pure prayer.

Let us pray for the sick that God might grant them the gift of physical healing to strengthen their faith and our faith. At the same time, let us pray that we all might receive the grace to be able to unite our sufferings with the saving cross of Jesus!

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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