1/22/2015 9:01:00 AM SEMINARIAN'S DIARY Priests and suffering
This is part of The Evangelist's ongoing series of reports from diocesan seminarians on their formation for the priesthood. Read previous installments under "specials" at www.evangelist.org.
BY MATTHEW HOULE
A good priest must be well-acquainted with suffering. Priests walk with people at the most painful times in their lives, so seminarians must witness and experience suffering ourselves.
People experience suffering in so many forms: poverty, loneliness, depression, discouragement, physical or mental illness, deprivation and so on. No one has the right to claim exemption from pain.
Sometimes, we get no answer when we ask God why or beg Him to take the pain away. Sometimes, God allows us to feel His absence. He is not really absent; we simply feel that way.
One of the most beautiful quotes I have ever heard about suffering is, "Sometimes God needs us to cry His tears." I don't know who said it first, but it is very true: The Church is the Body of Christ. God wants us to be His hands, His feet, His voice and His heart for others. We must do Christ's work, but we must also feel His pain and experience His suffering.
St. "Padre" Pio bore the wounds of Christ in the form of stigmata. God asks some of His saints to bear His physical wounds, but we can all participate in His suffering if we offer our pain to God.
As Catholics, we know that our suffering need not be in vain. We must recognize it as the powerful tool that it is and offer it as a sacrifice of love to God. By uniting our suffering to Christ's suffering on the cross, God can take that sacrifice and use it to heal some of the brokenness of the world.
Jesus and His mother are examples to us when we experience pain. All that we suffer, they suffered first. We must respond as they did - with love, humility, forgiveness and strength.
We must all bear our crosses and unite them to Christ's - but it must be for His glory, not our own. We can only cry God's tears if we understand that they are not our tears, but His. If we use our sufferings to glorify ourselves, they are wasted. Lording our suffering over others, acting as though no one has suffered as much as we have, is a form of arrogance.
Suffering is the way we detach ourselves from the pleasures and material things of this world, which can never fully satisfy us, but only leave us longing for more. Only through Christ and His cross may we be free of all that comes between us and God. We must die to ourselves so that we may be united with the ultimate joy and true desire of our souls: God.
I believe that we are closest to God when we suffer. Who is closer to Christ in the garden of Gethsemane than those who suffer from depression? Who feels the scourging at the pillar more than someone with burns or other physical injuries? Who knows what the crowning with thorns was like more than those who have been humiliated, mocked or teased? Who carries the cross with Christ more than someone struggling with addiction or a mental illness? Who knows what it is like to be crucified with Christ more than those who are falsely accused of a crime and have to accept the punishment meant for another? Who stands closer to Mary at the foot of the cross than a parent who has had to attend their own child's funeral?
Offering our sufferings to God does not take them away. It does not enrich us at all. But, as St. Pio said, "True and substantial devotion consists in serving God without experiencing any sensible consolation. This means serving and loving God for His own sake."
Without great suffering, there can be no great joy. What is love if it costs nothing to lose it? What is relief if there is no pain to take away? How can we fully experience the joy of God's presence in heaven if we do not feel His absence from time to time here on earth?
Thank God for your sufferings. Embrace your cross as Christ embraced His. Rejoice in your sufferings and give them to God.
(Mr. Houle, a native of St. Mary's parish in Albany, is studying for the priesthood at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.)