A few weeks ago at St Patrick's RC Church, Edinburgh, we had a visiting priest come over from Ireland, Father George Wadding CSsR. His presence was brief but his Sunday's homily still resonates. Upon asking, he kindly shared his homily with us:
THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER: (Year B - 2012)
The experience of innocent suffering destroys the faith of many people. We had it on a massive scale after the tsunami disaster at Christmas 2004 and a year later in the horrible Pakistan earthquake. Later again in Haiti and elsewhere. It never ends. If God is all goodness as we Christians say he is, why does he tolerate innocent suffering? Why are young children deprived of their parents in death? Why are young lives crippled or destroyed in road accidents? Why? Why? Why? If I could answer this question to everyone's satisfaction I could be a very rich man. Over the centuries wise men and preachers have offered various answers - some of them very unsatisfactory.
For example, the Old Testament suggests that bad things only happen to bad people. We imply the same when we ask: "Why me? I have always done my religious duties." When trouble comes, others think "I must have done something wrong." God is punishing me - I must have done something wrong because bad things should only happen to bad people. If that were the case, then Jesus must have been a very bad person. And anyhow, the FACTS do not support this. Good people and children were slaughtered by the Nazis, by Anders Breivik last July in Norway, by terrorists the world over, by thugs and vandals, by suicide bombers and by earthquakes and floods.
Or we say, suffering ennobles us, makes us better people (they say it's like surgery: it looks like butchery but ultimately does us good.) Of course, sometimes suffering can ennoble us. Through patient endurance of suffering some mystics have penetrated the mysteries of heaven. But often suffering doesn't ennoble us. Sadly, it can destroy lives and break up marriages. I think it is wrong to glorify suffering - to pretend it is not the evil it is.
Or again it is said that suffering makes our friends more caring and less selfish. Of course it can. We see that happening every day. But, would it be a just God who arbitrarily crippled me to make my friends more compassionate?
And there are other explanations. All of them presume that God causes us to suffer, that he sends us suffering; and we are trying to defend him; we are trying to find some excuse which won't make him look so bad. In fact, for me at least, these excuses often make God look more cruel and arbitrary.
As I see it, suffering is simply a part of being human and limited. It is just part of human life. Why that has to be I don't know. Could God have designed a different world, a better world - a world without sickness, without death, without hurricanes or earthquakes or volcanoes or moving tectonic plates? I don't know. I read recently that life could not exist on planet earth without moving tectonic plates - therefore without earthquakes and volcanoes. Could God have designed a world without animals that maul and kill, without fowl that spread avian flu, without sexual abuse, without drugs, without alcohol, without polluting cars, without change - a world without freedom? I don't know. Would you like him to? We'd all be born somehow without any pain to our mothers, there'd be no sibling rivalries, no disagreements, instant education to genius standard, infallible choice of the perfect spouse; all would live to 70 or 80 without arthritic pain or gout or strokes or bereavement and then be spirited over to eternal bliss.
Could God have taken away all innocent suffering? I don't know. What I do know is this: He shared it. The Son of God took on our human condition and accepted completely all that it brought him - pain, doubt, betrayal by friends, suffering for his poor mother, physical torture and a criminal's merciless execution in his early thirties. He didn't blame God for it. In fact, like us, he asked God to free him but God was silent. He didn't blame his enemies - rather he asked God to forgive them and made excuses for them.
Jesus, the totally innocent one, fully accepted his human condition with all its limitations, and in doing so, gave a creature's complete glory to his Creator. In doing so, he also pointed the way to us. I was 35 when I developed the heart trouble that had killed an older brother at 35 and debilitated another brother at 35. As I lay in hospital I found myself wondering, like many another, why me? Then one day my eyes rested on the crucifix and I found myself saying, why NOT me?
As we heard in the gospel, after his resurrection Jesus appeared to his followers on the road to Emmaus and again in Jerusalem; he went to great pains to explain to them how it was part of God's plan that the Christ should take on this suffering and so enter his glory.
Without the example of Jesus, innocent suffering would be meaningless. That day in hospital I decided that what was good enough for Jesus was good enough for me. Like Jesus, I would pray for healing for myself and others; and I would unite whatever suffering life threw at me with the redemptive sufferings of Christ for as St. Paul says: "By means of my physical sufferings I am helping to complete what still remains of Christ's sufferings on behalf of his body, the Church." (Col. 1:24) - only may God grant me the faith and courage always to be as good as my aspirations. As it was for Christ, so for us: the ultimate explanation for innocent human suffering will only come after death.