Three Responses to Innocent Suffering

(April 14, 2017)

Message: The suffering of innocents continues today. We want to respond not by withdrawal or false guilt, but by obedience.

Good Friday brings us face to face with the question that has haunted human beings: What purpose does suffering have?

For sure pain alerts us to something wrong. When St. Damien of Molokai was suffering from leprosy he lost feeling in his extremities. One day he unknowingly placed his foot in scalding water. Because he felt no pain he did not react quickly and his foot was severely damaged.

So pain has a purpose, but most of the time the pain seems out of proportion, even senseless. The question becomes more acute when an innocent person - for example a small child - suffers terrible things. This dilemma engages some of the greatest works of literature: The Book of Job in the Bible, Shakespeare's King Lear and Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.

As Christians we do not have a solution to the question of innocent suffering. We do however have God's response: the cross, the suffering and death of Jesus - a man totally innocent who suffered unimaginable pain.

We've grown so used to the cross that we hardly see the suffering involved. Blessed John Henry Newman suggested that a Christian could recover some of its shocking reality by imagining instead of Jesus an innocent child affixed to that instrument of torture. Dostoevsky imagined something similar in Brothers Karamazov. Each time I read his description of cruelty to a child it wrenches me.

But we don't need to look to literature. Consider what's happening in our world: children and families caught in terror in Syria, Egypt and other parts of the world. And if we care about innocent suffering we can find plenty of examples close to home - or even in our families.

To this suffering there are three responses: One, to turn it off, to shut it out and say there is nothing I can do. A second response is guilt: Why do I have it so good (relatively) while others suffer so much? False guilt drives some people to destructive behavior such as drugs, rage or cutting.

Beyond withdrawal and guilt we have a third response. We see it this evening in the Letter to the Hebrews: obedience. Obedience, as I will bring out in my Easter homily, is not blind servility, but rather listening - listening attentively to God and hearing his call.

Last night I gave the example of our bishop-elect Daniel Mueggenborg. As a young college student he attended a Mass celebrated by proto-martyr Stanley Rother. The peace and joy Fr Rother radiated caused Mueggenborg to reconsider his life. After graduating from college, he entered the seminary and followed a path of pastoral care - a path that now leads him to service here in the Archdiocese of Seattle.

This evening as we focus on the cross - the extreme suffering of an innocent man. The suffering of innocents continues today. We want to respond not by withdrawal or false guilt, but by obedience. Jesus embodies obedience. The Letter to Hebrews speaks about Jesus' loud cries and tears. "Son though he was he learned obedience."

Obedience - listening to God - results in positive action. It's no coincidence that on Good Friday we have amplified prayers of intercession that encompass the range of humanity. Obedience means to listen to God and serve others. Jesus' example inspires us: "Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered." Amen.

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Spanish Version

Homilies for Triduum 2017:

Holy Thursday
Good Friday
Easter Sunday

From Archives (Good Friday Homilies):

2016: Source of Mercy
2015: The Truth About Everything
2014 : Conformed to the Cross
2013 : The Contrast of Judas and Peter
2012: The Newness of Jesus' Death
2011: Suffering Is Everything
2010: Do Not Waste Your Suffering
2009: He Learned Obedience
2008: According to Your Word
2007: He Took Our Suffering to Himself
2006: The Hour of Divine Mercy
2005: The Conversion of Barabbas
2004: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
2003: The Host
2002: Testimony of Bishop Dolli
2001: Blood From His Side
2000: Vicarious Suffering
1999: Old Testament Fulfilled
1998: He took our place

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