Useful suffering

  • January 26, 2007

Every year in February, the Catholic Church marks the special place it holds in its heart for the sick, the suffering, the dying. The World Day of the Sick, held this year on Feb. 11, draws our attention to Christ's own compassion during His years on earth for those needing physical healing.

The church's attitude toward the sick and dying contrasts dramatically with the attitudes prevalent in mainstream society. Too often, the sick, especially the chronically and terminally ill, are problems to be approached with a modicum of passion when necessary, but especially with efficiency. The debate over euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide may be couched in the language of compassion and individual rights, but what lurks behind the soothing rhetoric are hard-nosed calculations of the cost of health-care resources.

In Canada, polls often show that a majority accept the "death-with-dignity" arguments that everyone has a right to dictate the terms of their own deaths and that it is compassionate to terminate the lives of those who are suffering. Indeed, suffering is seen as totally without redeeming value.

That's why the latest publication from the Catholic Office of Life and Family, an arm of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, is most useful (for the complete text, see the web site Timed for release in advance of the World Day of the Sick, the pamphlet is titled "Living, Suffering and Dying. . . What for?"

The publication recalls the words of Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger, once archbishop of Montreal, who said in a conversation about nursing homes for the aged: "So much unused suffering." The words "unused" and "suffering", when combined, jar the modern imagination. How can suffering be used? Isn't it our job to eliminate it?

Good questions. And there are good answers. As the publication makes clear, it is true that we are charged with eliminating all undue suffering, but we know that will never be completely possible. In the end, some suffering will endure. And, just as all God's creation has purpose, so too does suffering.

The publication reminds us of the words of the late Pope John Paul II: "Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else He says: 'Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross!' Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ. . . (he) finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy. . . . A source of joy is found in the overcoming of the sense of the uselessness of suffering. . ."

Catholics do not revel in suffering, but we understand there are deeper purposes to God's creation than we can judge in our preoccupation with the here and now. Rather than seeking to eliminate our discomfort at the sight of those who suffer, we are called to be with them and help them carry their cross.

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