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home : our faith : faith alive July 24, 2017

FAITH ALIVE: Looking anew at the realities of suffering
A Mozambican refugee walks toward his mother in Mwanza, Malawi, Feb. 7, 2016, after arriving at a makeshift camp to escape violence at home. Christians take the pain of suffering most seriously. The crucifix behind or above the altar in a Catholic church vividly reminds believers that Christ suffered an utterly painful death on a cross. CNS photo/Erico Waga, EPA
A Mozambican refugee walks toward his mother in Mwanza, Malawi, Feb. 7, 2016, after arriving at a makeshift camp to escape violence at home. Christians take the pain of suffering most seriously. The crucifix behind or above the altar in a Catholic church vividly reminds believers that Christ suffered an utterly painful death on a cross. CNS photo/Erico Waga, EPA

By David Gibson | Catholic News Service

Profound suffering, like a howling wind sweeping over and around people, is a force to contend with. It shakes people, knocks them off balance and causes them to feel uncertain what to do or which way to turn.

Harsh suffering damages the hope that people require and leaves them feeling isolated in their anguish -- alone, misunderstood, weakened and struggling.

It seems important to state that human suffering is painful. The terms "pain" and "suffering" frequently are linked, as if to suggest they are twins.

Christians take the pain of suffering most seriously. The crucifix behind or above the altar in a Catholic church vividly reminds believers that Christ suffered an utterly painful death on a cross.

Yet, the Christian view of suffering is complex. A church's central crucifix, after all, is a reminder also that Christ's death was redemptive. He suffered for others.

While suffering is not a goal in itself, Christians hold nonetheless that our suffering can be Christlike -- that times of suffering can become times for doing good and growing as persons.

The First Letter of Peter says to believers that Christ "suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps" (2:21).

The fifth chapter in the Gospel of Matthew brings the paradoxical, thought-provoking dimensions of suffering to the fore. "Blessed are they who mourn," the beatitudes inform us. Blessed, too, "are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness."

Fear tends to be suffering's travel companion -- a fear, often, of not knowing what the future holds.

A seedbed for fear is provided by a sense of powerlessness over the cause of one's suffering: a job loss; a debilitating illness; the seeming inability to communicate effectively with a family member; the damage done by a natural disaster.

Suffering assumes countless forms, and those who suffer include individuals, families, entire cities and even nations. A dominating image of suffering at this time depicts refugee families fleeing violence in their homelands and fearing for their survival.

Augmenting their pain is the lack of anywhere to go -- anywhere they will be welcomed or wanted, that is.

Pope Francis mentioned many forms of suffering in his November 2016 apostolic letter for the conclusion of the church's Year of Mercy. Titled "Mercy and Misery" ("Misericordia et Misera"), the letter invited an unleashing of "the creativity of mercy."

"Whole peoples suffer hunger and thirst, and we are haunted by pictures of children with nothing to eat," the pope wrote. "Throngs of people," moreover, "continue to migrate from one country to another in search of food, work, shelter and peace."

Disease, the pope pointed out, "is a constant cause of suffering that cries out for assistance, comfort and support." He called attention to prisons as places where confinement often "is accompanied by serious hardships due to inhumane living conditions."

Illiteracy, the pope noted, "remains widespread, preventing children from developing their potential and exposing them to new forms of slavery."

Everyone needs consolation, the pope commented. For, "no one is spared suffering, pain and misunderstanding." The cause may be "a spiteful remark born of envy, jealousy or anger." The cause may also be "the experience of betrayal, violence and abandonment."

Suffering "need not only be physical," Pope Francis observed during a June 2016 holy year celebration for the sick and people with disabilities. "One of today's most frequent pathologies is also spiritual," he stressed. "It is a suffering of the heart; it causes sadness for lack of love."

When individuals suffer, others in their lives often suffer too, though differently. Part of the challenge for these others is found in wanting to be of genuine assistance but not knowing exactly what to do or feeling frustrated over whatever they attempt.

The playwright Florian Zeller depicted this kind of situation in his recent play "The Father." The harsh wind carrying an old man's suffering -- his Alzheimer's-like dementia -- sweeps over the play's other characters too, his adult daughter particularly. Her suffering, impatience and pain become palpable.

All her best plans for her father seem to come to naught. What should she do for him, for herself, for the others who are part of her life? She cares greatly, but her confused understanding of her father's symptoms is great too.

"Blessed are the merciful," the Gospel of Matthew proclaims in its list of the beatitudes (5:7). But what does mercy look like in a situation like the one "The Father" describes?

Clearly, not just the father, but his daughter too required the mercifully kind action of others.

In others who suffer pain it is possible to touch "the suffering flesh of Christ," Pope Francis wrote in "The Joy of the Gospel," his 2013 apostolic exhortation.

"Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord's wounds at arm's length," the pope said. "Yet Jesus wants us to touch … the suffering flesh of others."

He wants us to "enter into the reality of other people's lives and know the power of tenderness."

Gibson served on Catholic News Service's editorial staff for 37 years.

Healing a heart

By Maureen Pratt | Catholic News Service

Cheryl Wunsch was a new mother and a recently baptized Catholic when she received the awful news that sent her on a 39-year journey to healing and forgiveness.

Her parents had recently divorced, and she had been out of touch with her father. But one day, unexpectedly, he called.

"He told me my mother was murdered the night before," Wunsch says. "A 17-year-old young man followed her into her apartment building. He went up in the elevator with her and stabbed her multiple times in front of her apartment door. Then, he dragged her into a stairwell and left her there. It was brutal."

The suddenness of her loss was shocking and painful. Questions weighed heavily: Who was the young man? Why had he done this? And how could she, a newly baptized Christian, ever forgive him?

Wunsch's mother was Catholic but converted to her father's Judaism after marrying him. Growing up, there was not much religious tradition at home, but, says Wunsch, "I always longed to know God."

When she married an Italian Catholic man and was expecting their first child, she visited with a parish priest. As they pored over the Book of Isaiah, says Wunsch, "I was hit by a thunderbolt -- that he was talking about Christ, the Messiah. It was very real -- one of those Holy Spirit moments. I was nine months pregnant when I was baptized -- I couldn't bend over the font!"

Her faith became the core of her ability to cope with her loss.

"Before my mother was murdered, I already had this profound understanding that Christ was God," says Wunsch.

"Did I get angry? I stormed heaven with my anger. I lost my mother. My baby was an infant. I was a brand new Christian. It was a sudden, traumatic loss. I wanted God to know, 'This is terrible. How could you let this happen?' But God knows when we're grieving. He loves us. He has big shoulders."

Wunsch reached out to others for support.

"I had wonderful people around me, a spiritual director who guided me through grief, and I went through psychotherapy."

But one wound was hard to heal.

"I was praying that I could forgive," says Wunsch, "but as soon as I forgave, I took it right back. I couldn't make myself forgive."

Wunsch earned a master's degree in counseling and raised her family. She started a prayer shawl ministry at her parish, donating the finished shawls to others who had suffered losses. Her pain lingered, but she continued praying she could forgive.

"God knew that I wanted to forgive," she says, "and I believed it would work out eventually."

Thirty-nine years after her mother's murder, in what would be a life-changing meeting, Wunsch took Communion to a disabled parishioner named Anna, whom she did not know. In gentle, gradual conversation, Wunsch discovered that Anna knew the family of the young man who had murdered Wunsch's mother. That visit and the many that followed provided crucial context for Wunsch to resolve the questions that had prevented her from being able to forgive.

"It was unbelievable," says Wunsch. "God allowed that situation, where I brought (the) Eucharist to Anna. In meeting Anna, God took me to forgiveness."

Today, Wunsch is a counselor in private practice in Southern California. She is a happy grandmother, active in her parish and as a Calmadolese Benedictine Oblate.

She gives retreats on forgiveness and has written a book, "Knitting, Praying, Forgiving: A Pattern of Love and Forgiveness." In it, she combines her journey, the prayer practice of "lectio divina," and knitting to encourage others to trust in God's love, the strength of abiding faith and especially the grace of helping one another heal.

"We all need people to encourage and lift us up. We can't do it alone," says Wunsch. "Terrible things do happen, but that doesn't mean God doesn't love us. We need to help each other to see that."

Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. Her website is

Job: Faith amid calamity

By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service

Except for the Crucifixion itself, the saying "Bad things happen to good people" was never exemplified more than in dear old Job, whose trials and tribulations forever brought new meaning to "the suffering of the innocent."

A "blameless and upright" man (Jb 1:1), Job was used by God (and the devil) as sort of a test case for faith. Without warning, his children die, his livelihood vanishes -- and yet he refuses to blame God.

"The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away," he surmises (1:21). "Blessed be the name of the Lord!" When his wife demands he "curse God and die," Job responds, without rancor, "We accept good things from God; should we not accept evil?" (2: 9-10).

Even so, Job is not without confusion, frustration and even anger at what has befallen him. "Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?" he laments (3:11). "I have no rest, for trouble has come!" (3:26).

In Job's time -- and in ours, in some cases -- it was assumed that God "paid you back" for some sort of misdeed (i.e., sin). Several of Job's friends, in fact, insist that he must have done something to warrant such calamity, and plead with him to remember and repent.

Job, however, doubts such "logic." Wicked men, he notes, grow old and "become mighty in power" (21:7). Clearly, he needs a better explanation than tit for tat.

Above all, even amid his immense suffering, Job believes in God and trusts that, somehow, God has his best interests at heart and will not let him down.

"If he tested me, I should come forth like gold," Job declares (23:10-11). "My foot has always walked in his steps; I have kept his way and not turned aside."

In the end, God speaks directly to Job and gives him, if not a clear explanation for what has happened, a new perspective with which to evaluate his life and his faith -- namely, the incomprehensible wonder of creation itself.

"Have you comprehended the breadth of the earth?" God asks. "Tell me, if you know it all" (38:18).

In other words, there is a lot more to life with God than Job, or any of us who have come after him, can ever realize or appreciate. Our role, ultimately, is to trust in God, that somehow, even amid the turmoil, we will come out on the other side of it OK.

Which, for Job, is what happened. "The Lord showed favor to Job" (42:9), restoring his family and his livelihood, and he lived to an old age.

What Job's experience shows us, all too clearly (and, yes, painfully), is that life with God is not a series of rewards and punishments based on our conduct. It's complicated and sometimes messy, but in the end, it is about faith and trust, in good times and bad, not just hoping but believing -- like Job -- that we, too, will "come forth like gold."

Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.


Does suffering have meaning?

For Christians, the answer resolutely is yes. St. John Paul II explains how in his apostolic letter "Savifici Doloris," ("The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering").

Christ, writes St. John Paul, "suffered in place of man and for man" and "every man has his own share in the redemption." Even more so, man is "called to share in that suffering" of the redemption.

In this way, Christ has elevated human suffering to the level of the redemption, the pope continues.

"Christ has opened his suffering to man" who becomes "a sharer in all human sufferings," writes St. John Paul. By participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ, man rediscovers through faith his own sufferings, "enriched with a new content and a new meaning."

The pope quotes St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians: "For as Christ's sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow" (1:5).

If man shares in Christ's sufferings, then man, too, shares in his resurrection. St. Paul writes: "For his (Christ's) sake I have accepted the loss of all things ... to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings ... if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the death" (Phil 3:10-11). 


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