Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

19 November 2015

Suffering Well

Patient Reader: Below you will find the article that appeared in a recent issue of the AD Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of Allentown (Allentown Diocese--Anno Domini--see what we did there?). Text in bold did not appear in the original article.

When I visit the hospitalized and elderly, I sometimes offer a prayer that I adapted from the Church’s Pastoral Care of the Sick and Roman Missal: “Father, Your Son and Our Savior Jesus Christ accepted our sufferings as a model of patience and strength in human illness. Hear the prayers we offer for [N.] and for all who suffer distress of body or soul. Help them to realize that You have called them to holiness by joining their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world.”

If you think such formalized prayers take a lot to say and a lot to live, I agree on both counts. For that reason, I like to say them slowly and live them slowly. I’m lying: I don’t like to live them slowly! A watched coffeepot never brews; an impatient patient never heals.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin pati, which means “to suffer, endure, put up with,” or the most basic sense, “to wait.” Pati also yields “passion,” the intensity that accompanies lovers toward love’s fulfillment. Suffering persons are also in love: they long for health and vitality, and cannot wait until they get there.

We draw only so many breaths in this life, and perhaps we pay little attention to the balance until more breaths are behind us than ahead. Meanwhile we have no guarantees that we shall retain the full use of our physical or mental faculties. 

Therefore it seems helpful to savor each breath as we draw it, each feeling as we feel it, each option as we ponder it, and each decision as we make it.

In whatever condition we currently find ourselves, while we have our faculties, we can decide to suffer well. What a curious choice! For the sake of clarity, let’s unpack it:

First, to suffer well is to recognize Jesus as the Son and Savior of Man, who alone accomplishes “universal and definitive redemption from sins” (CCC 432). He does this by taking on our human nature, entering completely into the joys and sorrows of human experience.

Did you ever consider that, by virtue of the Incarnation, Jesus accepted not just every single sin, but also every single human suffering: every pain, disappointment, and inconvenience? Upon the holy and life-giving Cross, Our Lord endured that twinge of diabetic neuropathy, the sting of that insult, that hour-long traffic jam, and that fear of perpetual infertility. From His vantage point—the best seat in the house—it’s all under control.

The problem is, we can still slog through life without necessarily considering the real-time presence of Christ in our sufferings. As a result, we begin to complain. We begin to compare our perception of how our lives are going with how we think it should be going, or how someone else’s life seems to be going—or how they want us to think it’s going. 

Practically speaking, God becomes less real and relevant in those dreary moments, and our suffering loses its value.

We can regain the value of our suffering by keeping Jesus’ Passion foremost in our minds, in weather foul or fair. Practicing in the fair may make it easier in the foul.

With the onset of each unwelcome experience, we can pray in groans to this effect: “I unite myself right now to You, Lord Jesus. As You suffered for me and with me, so I suffer for You and with You. Please accept this offering, Lord, as small it may seem, and please share it throughout the world and throughout the ages [accounting for the Holy Souls in need of post-mortem purgation] so that it may benefit whomever You will.”

I say, “pray in groans,” because you probably might not be inclined to formulate such a pious formula in the midst of pain and distress.

A couple of months ago, I was in an accident that landed me in an emergency room for most of that day with a wide laceration on my left heel and lots of deep bruises in the foot. In those first hours the thought “Thank God, it could have been far worse,” mingled with fears that I would hardly be able to walk straight, let alone run, by next year’s Boston Marathon. 

On that ER bed I did my awful best to unite my pains and anxieties with those of Our Lord upon the Cross, with the hopes that my offering could help facilitate someone’s repentance and conversion.

I am happy to report that I am recovering appropriately, although it’s not as fast as I’d prefer. At every turn in this process I have noticed how impatient a patient I am. 

But Our Lord is so patient with us! He lets us go, gives us the freedom to gripe until we return once again to our senses. In the meantime, the experience has been an opportunity to grow in compassion for the people I visit in the hospitals and nursing facilities I serve.

Even as the human race exists in a sort of “communion of sin,” joined by our profoundly wounded human nature and its self-seeking tendencies, the Church incorporates men and women into the Communion of Saints, forgiven and redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ. 

If anything could be said about any of the saints, they suffered well, uniting themselves with their Lord for the salvation of souls. How I long to be in that number!

14 November 2015

Your Time Is Gonna Come

These readings are taking us to the “end times”: in one sense, the end of a liturgical year, but especially the end of all time when Christ comes again. The prophet Daniel foretells Archangel Michael’s great harvest of just and unjust. In Mark, Jesus seems to bypass angelic involvement in favor of His own surprise soul-sifting. Either way, to quote Led Zeppelin, “your time is gonna come.”

But that sifting time doesn’t completely and convincingly materialize this side of heaven. Meanwhile we have the perennial “problem of evil,” or as the Church’s Catechism calls it, the “mystery of evil.” Why and how does evil occur in the world—more precisely, why and how are people allowed to commit evil—sometimes seemingly without consequences, and without divine intervention?

While it remains a great scandal that God allows us to do evil, it is that very gift of freedom based on understanding and virtue that enables us to do good. Take away the possibility of evil from us, and you thereby take away the possibility of good. How incredibly powerful and complex has God made us! The fire that can, in one moment, drive people along the warpath of rage, also can drive people in the commitment of marriage, holy orders, and consecrated life. It depends on where we allow our hearts to roost.

I began to put my thoughts together before all this stuff in France happened! In case you haven’t heard it: on Friday militant Islamists killed over 120 people in Paris. The day before, it was Beirut. Not long before, a Russian airliner. Pope Francis aptly referred to these terrorist actions as a kind of drawn-out Third World War.

At the same time, wars happen, to our minds, outside of us. We are tempted to distance ourselves from them and objectify them. Beyond the initial fear and outrage, we must remember—and we do remember—that there’s the solidarity of grief and prayer; but also there is the renewed battle call to personal holiness and mission.

We might say, “Let’s hear it for children and for saints,” as they seem so enviably single-hearted in their pursuit of happiness, goodness, and faith. But a sappy love of children, or even saints, will not make us childlike or saintlike. Suddenly, having become adults, we renew our maturity again and again by harnessing of our passions for beauty, our understanding for truth, and our freedom for goodness; in so doing we pay the best homage to childhood and sanctity.

All of this is rooted in Jesus the Christ, who, Hebrews reminds us, “offered one sacrifice for sins, and took His seat forever at the right hand of God.” “Now,” the letter continues, “He waits until His enemies are made His footstool.” Are the men and women of ISIS “His enemies?” Is God’s inspired Word accomplished in their elimination? Or is the one sacrifice of Christ the means to accomplish even their salvation and consecration...even ours?

11 October 2015

Take Counsels

You may have heard of a Catholic thing called the “Evangelical Counsels.” They are called “evangelical” because they are rooted in Jesus’ teachings as found in the Holy Gospels (ευ', "good" + αγγελίον, "message"). They are called “counsels” as opposed to “commands,” because Our Lord didn’t make them mandatory; but one might say that, for the person who seeks holiness, they are as optional as a life preserver on a stormy sea. 

They are three in number: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Together they form three prongs of a single plug that connects us to, and keeps us grounded in, holiness--likeness to Jesus Christ. You might recognize them as the vows that men or women take to align themselves with a religious community.

The Scripture readings of last, this, and next week wonderfully illustrate this threefold way of life. Last week’s words on the Creator’s intention for marriage (sexual complementarity, fidelity, permanence, exclusivity, and openness to new life) concern Gospel Chastity; This week’s exhortations against dependence on wealth and other possessions deal with Poverty; and next week’s story of James and John in their search for status speaks to Obedience, our need to "render an account" to another person throughout our lives.

Again, the Church has called these “counsels” because Jesus presented them as paths to perfection, to become the clearest channel of divine mercy. To be perfect, however, is to be steadfast in striving toward their realization in our particular lives. In a sense, one can strive toward evangelical poverty no matter how big your bank account or home, or if you have neither. Evangelical chastity is possible for married or unmarried persons. A company’s CEO can seek evangelical obedience as readily as its janitor can.

The key is to place our individual skills and ills at the Lord’s service. Skills and ills, because God can use both for His glory and for another’s benefit. We cannot cling to anything we have as if we made it happen and it would go away if we loosened our grip. Our treasures, our plans, our institutions—whatever occupies our minds most of all–we must continually offer to God with full appreciation for it, and with a sense of its preciousness and fragility, as if He would take it away the moment we offered it. It’s not that we don’t want it, and it’s not that God will necessarily take it; but when God Himself reserves the place of priority, all else falls into place for His sake.

13 September 2015

Damage Control

On the main drag of Saint Clair there used to be a hardware store. Unlike your Home Depot and Lowe's, this wasn't much of a place to browse around, but you could get what you needed. Once I brought a key to have duplicated. As the owner practiced his keycraft, he shared, "People come to me to fix the mistakes they get up at the mall."

I sometimes feel that way about what we priests end up doing in the course of our ministry: attempting to repair the mistakes others have made before us. A couple times a week I meet people in the hospital who share war stories. Now I recognize with no small amount of gratitude that--hey, people are taking that opportunity to disclose themselves to me! They don't have to. They can send me away (and some do). But those who let me stay, must need to be cleansed, and I hope I give them a fair hearing.

People don't come to the hospital expressly intending to meet a priest with whom they can share their hurts. They want to get their knees or hips replaced; they want their gallbladder out; they want to be able to breathe more clearly. But in the course of their visit they meet this priest who invites them (explicitly or not) to submit themselves to another sort of treatment being aimed at a deeper, more insidious cancer. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. I shall you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one" (Lk 12:4-5).

"Father Yesteryear yelled at me for wearing a hat/chewing gum/playing Angry Birds in church." On the level of harms, this is among the lowest. It betrays the depth of ego deflation that needs to take place in our hearts.

"Father yelled at me in confession." This is higher on the harm scale. Maybe I come from an enlightened era, but I can't think of a reason why--scratch that. I admit that it is hard to accompany some people who seem to agonize over trifles, or who act as a sort of mirror to me with a particular quirk or fault they can't let go of.

"They closed my parish. I got all my sacraments there. My grandparents built that church." I empathize to some degree, and am not afraid to share my experience with the parochially displaced. The parish of my youth merged with the others in town seven years ago. Although my church didn't close for another five years, I still couldn't offer my "First" Mass of Thanksgiving there, because it wouldn't comfortably hold all the clergy and lay guests. As sad as that last fact was, it was more important to me that everyone was together. That many of these people hardly bothered to give the new parish in town a try, or even go to another parish if it was closer to them--that's another matter.

I usually engage the patients with reason, knowing all the while that a hospital visit scarcely furnishes any real clarity; or, if they "see my point," still more emotional repair [ego deflation] awaits. I don't have to be the one to make all that happen in that visit, or even in subsequent ones. God is bigger than me. He has the total picture of a person's life. But I don't want to cower from challenges because I might hurt a person's feelings. "Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean."

The other day Pope Francis gave priests a one-two punch, when he told compassionless priests to find another job instead of spreading their misery to unsuspecting "patients," penitents who already approach the sacrament with guilt and remorse. Now the Pope exhorted all the faithful to compassion in that morning homily, but his words to priests were especially salient. I could hear a bevy of disgruntled folks ganging up on a presbyterate assembled for their Chrism Mass, taunting, "Yeah--yeah!!" And they'd be right.

Nowadays it's not often the confessional where people see the darker, human side of priests, since people don't go to confession like they used to. Now they see us that way in the rectory, the parish school, the vestibule, the funeral home, or other places they may happen upon the hospital. 

They may have wanted or at least expected to see us around the parish campus or in liturgical settings, but not necessarily in the hospital. It is something of a luxury that our diocese is still able to "afford" a couple of diocesan priests in full-time hospital ministry. Maybe we can't afford not to have some in hospitals, as they are such a fertile ground for a meaningful encounter.

Author Eve Tushnet is gathering ideas to write a book about people who have been hurt by the Church. That's a great idea, because people who pick up that book might hear someone telling their story. Hopefully they might also find how at least some of those people found their way back to the Catholic Church, or never left her, despite the flaws of her priests...or despite their own flaws, which might have been the major catalyst, or at least a factor, in the original incident.