Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Catholic Perspective on Suffering

Elisabeth Leseur

(Seventh Sunday of Easter (A): This homily was given on May 4, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Peter 4: 13-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Seventh Sunday of Easter 2008]

  • Suffering for the sake of suffering.
  • Suffering for a righteous cause.
  • Suffering for a person you love.

The Catholic Church believes in the last two—she does NOT believe in the first, although she’s often accused of it! How often have you heard people say, “Catholics love suffering”; “Catholics enjoy suffering”; “Catholics are into suffering”?

Now I can’t speak for every individual Catholic, so maybe there are a few people in the Church with masochistic tendencies, who get their jollies out of experiencing pain for the sake of experiencing pain.

But I’m definitely not one of them!

And probably neither are you.

Which is just fine, because nowhere in the Bible or in the Catechism does it say that we must love and embrace suffering for its own sake.

Despite what the comedians and critics of the Church tell us, this is not a Catholic doctrine.

But what the Church and the Scriptures do teach—especially through the Cross of Jesus Christ—is that suffering does have value when it’s embraced for the sake of a noble, righteous cause; or when it’s embraced for the sake of someone you love.

And you know what? On some level, even atheists believe that, as I hope to make clear in a minute.

This truth is expressed beautifully, regarding Jesus, in 1 Peter 3: 18 where we read, “The reason why Christ died for sins once for all, the just man for the sake of the unjust, was that he might lead you to God.”

Jesus didn’t suffer because he enjoyed it (if you saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ you know that he definitely did NOT enjoy it!). Rather, he willingly embraced his suffering—his Cross—for a righteous cause (the most ‘righteous cause’ of all—the salvation of the human race), and out of love for other people (sinners like you and me).

If we want to find meaning in our suffering—and I sincerely hope we do, because we’re going to suffer one way or the other—if we want to find meaning in our suffering, we need to follow the example of Jesus. This is what St. Peter is getting at in today’s second reading. Notice that toward the end of the passage he says, “Let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer.”

He says that because if you suffer for doing evil, you’re not suffering for a righteous cause or out of genuine love for others!

You’re not suffering, in other words, like Jesus did.

On the other hand, Peter says, if you suffer for being true to your Christian faith—for loving your neighbor and witnessing to the truth—then you should not be ashamed! Rather, you should rejoice, because what you’re doing is bringing you and others one step closer to heaven. Peter says (and here I quote): “Rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit and glory of God rest upon you.”

Now obviously Christians see a deeper, spiritual dimension in their trials and crosses; but, as I said a few moments ago, the idea that suffering has value if it’s embraced for a righteous cause or for someone you love is something that almost everyone believes, including those who are atheists; including those who make fun of what the Catholic Church teaches about suffering.

And that’s pretty easy to demonstrate.

For example, even atheists go to work every day, do they not? They get up early, battle traffic, deal with difficult people on the job, go to meetings they’d rather not go to, and put up with ornery bosses (unless they work for me!). They experience many different types of suffering from the time they get up in the morning until the time they arrive home in the late afternoon or early evening. And of course, once they’re back with their families, they’re forced to deal with a whole new set of sufferings (but that’s another story!)

So why do they do this day in and day out? What’s wrong with these people? Are they masochists? Are they all into suffering for the sake of suffering?

Of course not.

They endure these things—they suffer in these ordinary but very real ways—to provide for their families. They do it for a righteous cause, and for the people they love.

Or how about our troops serving us in Iraq and Afghanistan and other hot spots around the world? Some of them (believers and non-believers alike) come home seriously wounded, with disabilities that they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives. And since many of them are in their 20s, the “rest of their lives” is likely to be a really long time!

But it’s amazing how many of these brave soldiers say they are glad they were able to serve their nation in this way and make this kind of sacrifice.

Are they masochists?

Not at all!

They’re convinced they made the sacrifice for a righteous cause (to stop terrorism and to promote freedom). And in this post-9/11 world, I’m sure many of them also see themselves as suffering for the people they love! In their minds, because of their willingness to give up an arm, or an eye, or a leg, their loved ones will be able to live in greater security here in the United States.

Believers and non-believers alike know that suffering can have meaning and value; however those who have a deep faith in Jesus Christ have the ability to take it to a much deeper level.

This last point was made beautifully during our parish mission, when Fr. Jordan Turano told us the very powerful story of Elisabeth Leseur. She was born in Paris in 1866, and in 1889 she married a medical doctor named Felix Leseur. Felix had been raised a Catholic, but in medical school he lost his faith, and eventually declared himself to be an atheist. And he was not just an ordinary atheist; he was a very “loud,” militant atheist—like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins today; so much so, that for a time he was the editor of an anti-clerical, atheistic newspaper in Paris, in which he constantly attacked the Church and people of faith.

Interestingly enough, as time passed and Felix became more and more anti-God in his outlook, his wife Elisabeth became more and more devout. As you might imagine, Felix wasn’t too happy about this, and tried a number of times to “enlighten” his wife and undermine her ever-growing faith, but thankfully he never succeeded.

In 1904 Elisabeth became seriously ill. She suffered terribly for 10 years, and eventually died of cancer. A couple of years before her death she made a very bold prediction to her husband: she told him that he would someday have a conversion of heart and return to the practice of his faith. She said it with incredible confidence. Then she went one step further. She said, “Felix, I know you. I am absolutely certain that when you return to God, you will not stop on the way because you never do things by halves. . . . You will some day be Father Leseur."

He probably thought she was hallucinating! He responded, “Elisabeth, you know [how I feel]. I’ve sworn hatred of God. I shall live in that hatred and die in it.”

Elisabeth passed away in 1914. Not long after her death, Felix was reading through her personal journal, and there he found a note that was written by his wife to him. She knew that someday he would find it. The note read: “In 1904 I asked Almighty God to send me sufficient sufferings to purchase your soul. On the day that I die you will have been bought and paid for. Greater love than this no woman has.”

By the following year, Dr. Felix Leseur was a practicing Catholic again. And several years later, in 1923—at the age of 62—he was ordained a priest for the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans. He was married to Elisabeth for 25 years, and believe it or not he served the Lord as a priest for 27 years, dying in 1950.

This is why the nuns always said to “offer it up”.

Elisabeth Leseur did not embrace suffering for its own sake; she embraced it and “offered it up” for a very noble cause (a re-conversion to Christ), and for the person she loved most on this earth, her atheist husband.

She did those things because she was truly “Catholic” in her attitude toward suffering.

May the Lord help us all to be Catholic in the same way.