I come from a family background that very much understands the relationship between pain and healing. Let me share a little bit about myself and my upbringing. When I was still in my 20’s my father was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor. The doctors had to perform two very long surgeries to remove it, and they said that it was about the size of a small grapefruit. The tumor was in the frontal lobe of his brain, and, thanks be to God, he survived. However, he wasn’t the same man who entered the surgery. The brain tumor and the operation put him in a semi-comatose state where he lived under long term rehab care facility for eight years.
Shortly after my father was hospitalized, I entered seminary. I remember telling my mother that I was going to drop out of school to help her with whatever she needed. She forbade me from making that choice. She preferred that I enter and do the best I could. For eight years, life was schoolwork and all the requirements of seminary training with the bi-weekly visits to the rehab hospital with my mother to see how my father was doing. Then, on May 20, 1995, I was ordained a priest at Holy Name Cathedral. A wonderful religious sister, a woman I considered my spiritual mother, came to my ordination. After the ordination ceremony, when the newly ordained offer their first blessings to friends and family outside of the Cathedral, she came up to me. She said: “You became a priest because you have benefited from the merits of your father’s suffering.” That was my first real lesson in the power of redemptive suffering, and I never forgot it! My father died nine months after my ordination.
Years later, I would have another encounter with redemptive suffering. I was once called to the hospital to anoint a wonderful faith-filled and dedicated lady who was suffering from a severe case of osteoporosis. This woman of 70+ years of age was having surgery to reattach the bones that connected her head to her spine. They were so brittle that the doctors feared that they would not last.
The day I arrived, I found the lady with four children in the hospital room: three daughters and a son. They exhibited so much concern and anxiety about the high-risk nature of the surgery that they struggled with, giving her a moment’s peace. I asked the family to leave me alone with their mother to hear her confession. I asked: “As you prepare for this ordeal, what are you most afraid of?” She replied astonishingly: “I am afraid of not suffering well.” I was taken aback by her response. Her biggest fear was not being able to face the challenge of human suffering with the necessary faith and bravery of a Christian. She may have been the one who received the Sacrament that day, but it was I who left that room healed.
The COVID-19 pandemic forces us to look at the ugly side of human suffering. There is nothing beautiful about it. However, when we take a closer look at the reality of suffering, we find that, fundamentally, there is a choice about how we will approach the ordeal of suffering. Facing our pains in life always brings us to a crossroads. One road leads to desperation, loneliness, fear, hopelessness, and darkness. The other is grounded on faith, courage, hope, love, and life. To take the road of faith is to follow Christ and unite our pain with the redemptive passion of Christ. It was not just Christ’s death that was redemptive, but the passion as well. Every blow, whip, spittle, insult, thorn, and nail that pierced his flesh, death, and resurrection that redeemed us. To make our suffering redemptive, one would have had to hear Christ’s call to “take up your cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). In following Christ through redemptive suffering is to understand what St. Paul said when he wrote: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Colossians 1:24).
Redemptive suffering offers the patient and those who care for them an opportunity to experience Christ in a special way. For the suffering, Christ draws them to himself at Golgotha and, like the repentant thief, Christ turns to them and says: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23). To those who care for the sick, redemptive suffering offers an opportunity to express one’s love for Christ through attending to the needs of those who are ill. Indeed, redemptive suffering transforms a suffering human being into the person of Christ himself. We are reminded of this when Christ tells us that “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, you do to me!” (Matthew 25:45).
There are always prognosticators willing to suggest that things are going to get more difficult in the coming weeks in terms of this pandemic. Roman Catholics and people of goodwill are having to facing the crossroads that this pandemic will lead us to. We can either choose to panic or search for Christ in every person we meet. I prefer the road of faith and redemptive suffering. Christ is all around us. What will we do and say when we meet Him is up to each person to decide.