Sunday, September 14, 2003

The Catholic Church And The Reality Of Human Suffering

Fatima Basilica

(Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross: This homily was given on September 14, 2003 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Philippians 2: 6-11; John 3: 13-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Cross 2003]

Why do you remain a Catholic?

Think about that question for a moment.

Why do you remain a Catholic?

That’s not the same as asking, “Why did you become a Catholic?” In most cases that was because of a decision your parents made many years ago without ever asking your opinion on the matter. You were a little too small for that!

But why do you remain a member of the Church—especially after all the scandals and difficulties of recent months?

I’ll give you my personal answer this morning. If someone were to say to me, “Fr. Ray, why do you remain a Catholic?” I would say, “That’s simple. It’s because Catholicism is the best explanation of reality that I’ve ever found! No other philosophy, no other religion, no other system of thought helps me to understand myself, and the world around me, and the meaning of life, like Catholicism does.”

And this is especially true when it comes to the crucial issue of suffering.

How do you make any sense whatsoever of the trials and difficulties of life? That’s one of the fundamental questions of human existence, since we all suffer!

Some religions teach that suffering is just an illusion; others teach that it has no value whatsoever and should be avoided at all costs—if you have to sin to avoid it, then so be it; still others teach that you can eventually escape from it totally on this earth (perhaps after you’re reincarnated several hundred times!).

But none of those perspectives squares with the “real” world!

I know (by my own experience) that suffering is definitely not an illusion. When someone hits me or offends me I feel it! That’s reality!

And suffering does have a value, even on a purely human level. I know, for example, that when I “suffer” for an hour at the gym I feel better afterward. I’m physically healthier. I know that I’m standing here today because my parents sacrificed and “suffered” to give me what I needed when I was growing up.

And if you think you can escape from suffering on this earth after you’re reincarnated 1,000 times (as some New Age types believe), all I can say is, “Good luck!”

I mention all this because on this weekend the Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, also known as the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross.

Here we are reminded of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, suffered! He really suffered—far more than any of us can even imagine! His passion and death were not illusions. But by his suffering we are saved! Jesus tells Nicodemus in today’s Gospel that “the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

St. Paul puts it this way in that beautiful text from Philippians 2 (which we heard in our 2nd reading), “[Jesus] humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. [But] because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name that is above every name.”

The bottom line is this: Jesus Christ really suffered, but he was not destroyed by his suffering!!! Rather, he used it to destroy the power of sin, Satan, and eternal death! He used it to save the world!

And it’s in the light of this victory of Christ (the triumph of his cross) that our crosses take on a new meaning and a new value.

If Jesus used his Cross for good (and we know he did!), then it follows that I—his disciple—can also use my daily crosses for good (if I unite mine to his). I can use my crosses, for example, as a motivation to change my life for the better—as a motivation to become holier.

When people suffer a terrible tragedy and sincerely convert their hearts, this is what they’re doing, is it not?—they’re using their cross as a path to holiness.

I can also use my crosses like prayer, to draw down God’s blessings and graces into my own life and into the lives of others. St. Paul said to the Colossians, “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. For in my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”

Paul believed his sufferings were like his intercessory prayers: as he offered them up for the Colossian people, they were blessed by the Lord.

Most of you know that I just got back from Lourdes and Fatima, two places where the Blessed Mother appeared to young people: to Bernadette at Lourdes in 1858, and to Francisco, Jacinta and Lucia at Fatima in 1917.

This idea that I’m talking about today was at the heart of the messages our Lady gave in both those places. At both Lourdes and Fatima she said to the children—and through them she says to us—“Pray, and do penance for the conversion of sinners.” Prayer—and penance!

What’s a penance?

A penance, in effect, is a voluntary cross—a voluntary suffering that we take upon ourselves for our own personal sanctification, and for the sanctification of others. That’s why at Fatima you will see people saying the Rosary as they circle the chapel on their knees! They walk on their knees for hundreds of feet on hard marble or cobblestone.

Are these people masochists? No! They simply understand this truth about suffering. They understand reality—far better than some geniuses do.

You know what Bishop Sheen used to say? He used to say, “The real tragedy of this life is not that people suffer; the real tragedy of this life is that so many people waste their suffering! They waste it, because they never offer it up, in love, for anybody.”

At this Mass we pray that whenever we suffer in the future, we won’t waste any of it.