by Parish Staff
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May the Peace of the Risen Christ be with you!
The Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel (10:38) says to us “he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Thus Jesus defines discipleship as one’s willingness to suffer with Him. Being a disciple of Christ, as each of us is called to be, and me even more so as an ordained priest, not only means having faith in Him, but offering our sufferings to the Father as He did on the Cross. There is no true life without the Cross. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me: (Matthew 16:24, March 8:34). In Luke’s gospel, Jesus adds, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (9:23). Jesus is telling us that taking up our cross daily requires us to join our daily temporal sacrifices (inconveniences and worries as well as pain) with His eternal sacrifice. Through my suffering, the carrying of my cross, and due to the effects of my baptism, I become the suffering Christ. The same is true for you as well.
I am sure that it was not always easy for Jesus to bear His cross. Remember that during the agony in the garden, He prayed “Father let this cup pass from me, but not my will but your will be done” (Lk. 22:42). I remember when I was still in the wheelchair, there was one evening when I was having a hard time sleeping due to the pain in my legs, I cried out in a loud voice “Why do I have to be the one who has to suffer? Please take this pain from me.” I heard a voice say to me as if there was another person in my bedroom: “If I went through it, then you can too.” Needless to say, I stopped complaining after that. So why me? Because I was the one that the Lord Jesus had chosen to join Him in His suffering.
St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians (1:29) speaks to this question: “for the sake of Christ we are not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for His sake. Growing in holiness requires more than living the faith in God and accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. We must also willfully embrace the suffering that befalls us as part of God’s plan. Thus, Christ does not want our faith alone but our faith in action which includes faith in suffering.” Our Baptism also gives us an insight into the answer of the question “Why me?” With Baptism, one begins to dwell in Christ and Christ in him/her. Thus my pain is very much connected to the pain of Christ Himself. Since His pain was redemptive, so my pain is a redemptive pain — not just for myself, but for others as well. In 2 Timothy 1:8, St. Paul instructs Timothy to share in suffering for the Gospel. Suffering is not to be asked for, but it is also not to be avoided. For the sake of the Gospel, it is to be embraced.
I must also ask the question, “If I do not embrace the pain and the suffering, what would my life be like?” This is a bit difficult to answer since it is contrary to the reality. I recall that when I first began my journey of pain, I was not a happy camper! I was, to say the least, angry with God. Why would He allow such a thing to happen to one who has dedicated his life to Christ and the Church as a priest? I began to feel sorry for myself which affected the way in which I ministered. Being angry, does not make the best priest. After all, a priest is supposed to be kind and generous just as Jesus was. He is supposed to go the extra mile for the sake of the other. I was not the priest that I knew that I should be. Pope Francis says that we are to smell like the sheep!
Denial works against us. When in denial, one does not know how to be a true minister of the Gospel. One cannot reach out to the other, if he/she is always concerned about self. It is so easy to give in to the pain and to do whatever one must do to make the pain go away. Pain medication is meant to help cope with the pain, not to make one dependent on the medication so that it becomes the goal of one’s life. I thank God that He gave me a body that does not accept narcotics very well. I would rather have the pain than to add to the suffering due to the pain medication.
After my second operation, not knowing that there would be more problems in the future, I turned to the Lord for relief. I thought that if I could give some purpose to the pain, then I would better be able to bear the pain. Thus I turned to prayer. At the time, there were a lot of problems in the parish, problems that prevented the parish from being the community that it was supposed to be. I told God that I wanted to offer up my pain and suffering so that the parish could one day be the parish community that truly reflected the unity of the Body of Christ – a community in which all lived their baptism. Little did I know what I was asking for, but I did begin to find peace in my suffering. The pain in my legs and arms began to have purpose. I did not know that it would take fifthteen years and twenty more surgeries to see changes begin to take place within the parish community. All of this has given me the ability to accept the pain in my life which I would gladly give up since I did not ask for it to begin with. This experience has also strengthen my faith and trust in the Lord.
It is not often that a priest is allowed to witness the success of his ministry while he is still walking in this earthly life. My estranged parish has begun to grow into that Christian community that I had pleaded for – my suffering was truly bringing blessings. I now see people that are being united by the power of the Eucharist, that sacrament that bonds us one to the other, that sacrament that demands of us to become Christ in our world. Parishioners are no longer fearful of expressing their love for the Lord and His Church even in non-ecclesial places and events. People are no longer afraid to ask for prayer and are most willing to pray for the needs of other members of the community. I am moved by the willingness of people to offer their service to build up the parish community. But I should not be surprised at what is happening since it was indeed the suffering and death of Jesus on the Cross that united the early Christian community. It is true – everything leads to the Cross and in turn, every blessing comes from the Cross. Tying human suffering to the Cross does indeed give it value.
During these last two weeks of Lent, spend some time reflecting on the suffering of Christ. See how your own suffering, whatever form that may take, can be tied into His suffering. A true follower of Christ cannot deny the Cross.
I love you,