Christ provides the only answer that truly satisfies the ‘why’ of suffering
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
It is said that “sadness is looking at oneself,” whereas “joy is looking at God.” I must admit, though, in looking back upon this past year, with its many tragedies, from the deadly and devastating wildfires in Sevier County and the tornado in Athens, to the wars and sufferings around the world, joy seems out of place — and even inappropriate to speak about. But I believe that it is in just such times as these that we need to be heralds of the hymn of joy that the angels announced to the shepherds — to be the bearers of “tidings of great joy,” even in our crosses.
Why? This one word, this one question, sums up the universal reaction to the mystery of human suffering, and yet no number of words seems adequate to explain it. But as people of faith, we know suffering and sadness do not have the last word. Cardinal Justin Rigali, who was present at the Second Vatican Council, reminds me of the beautiful words from that council regarding this mystery: “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us.” For this reason, Pope Francis tells us we must not be people of sadness, “for a Christian can never be sad!”
Almost 40 years ago, I was diagnosed as a type I diabetic, and for almost 18 years I took four shots a day. It didn’t take me long after being diagnosed with this life-changing condition to become very discouraged and frustrated. But one day, a priest, who was also diabetic, explained to me how to find purpose and even joy in this cross. He reminded me how important it was to use every moment, particularly the crosses, to allow God to awaken love in me for others in need. “Every time you take a shot,” he said, “pray for someone in difficulty.” And as I did, I stopped looking at myself and at the diabetic constraints placed upon my life. Joy came back to me as I began to see Christ in those whom I offered my shots for.
If God permits suffering, it is because it can awaken and release in us a far greater love for others, according to Pope St. John Paul II, especially when we unite our sufferings to those of Christ upon the cross. This is what the Church calls redemptive or salvific suffering. St. Teresa of Kolkata, no stranger to the mystery of suffering, explains that “suffering in and of itself is useless, but suffering that is shared with the passion of Christ is a wonderful gift and a sign of love.”
So not only does Jesus provide the only answer that truly satisfies the “why” of suffering — His own sufferings — He also invites us to be a part of this answer to the world. By embracing our crosses with Jesus, He reveals to us the meaning and purpose of our own sufferings. When we pick up our cross and follow Christ (Matthew 16:24), uniting our sufferings with His, we become sharers in the work of salvation.
What greater dignity and meaning can be given to suffering than to use it for the good and salvation of souls? This is what is meant by “offering up” one’s sufferings. This is the joy that comes from looking at God — at Christ crucified.
By embracing the cross, Christ transformed the most feared instrument of suffering and death into the very means of our salvation. By uniting our suffering with His, we become bearers of His joy, which is the salvation of souls. This is why St. Paul can say, “I rejoice in my sufferings …” (Colossians 1:24)
Cardinal Rigali reminds me of the words Blessed Paul VI spoke in an address to the poor and sick:
“You are brothers and sisters of the suffering Christ, and with Him, if you wish, you are saving the world.” These are powerful words for us to ponder as we begin 2017.