Dear Rev. Know it all;
I am currently taking a course titled “Providence, Suffering and Freedom,” and have recently come across the issue of innocent suffering. This is a very hard subject to understand and so far the nature of God has come into question. If God is all powerful, all loving, and just, how can he allow innocent suffering. Assertions that God is not all powerful have been made because God would not allow his creation to be harmed if he is all powerful and all loving. I am asking what the Catholic Church's position is on the issue of innocent suffering and the all powerful nature of God.
Miss E. Rable
Dear Miss Rable,
I am always curious how anyone can walk into a Catholic church and ask such a question? We believe in redemptive suffering. In a Catholic church the center piece above the altar is usually a crucifix, not a cross, but a crucifix. A cross is two pieces of wood or some other material. A crucifix has a representation of Christ crucified. I am not supposed to say Mass unless there is a crucifix on or close to the altar, because I am offering the Holy SACRIFICE of the Mass.
I suppose part of the problem is that in our more enlightened times, we try not to have a crucifix as visibly displayed as we once did. Now we celebrate the Lord’s supper, the Eucharistic meal, the Table of the Lord, the Lord’s Banquet and so on. Bishop Annibale Bugnini, the architect of the current form of the Roman Liturgy, is said to have presented a new and improved Roman Missal (Mass Book) to Pope Paul VI. Paul studied it and said he couldn’t publish it. The word “sacrifice” was nowhere to be found in the new text. He sent it back and said try again. Thus was the sacrificial character of the Mass preserved and the promise of Christ to Peter proved true once again. The gates of Hell had not prevailed. It was Bishop Bugnini’s stated intention to create a Mass in which a Protestant would find nothing offensive. A real Protestant finds the idea of the Mass as a true sacrifice incomprehensible. Luther and Calvin rejected the idea that Mass was a sacrifice, Christ “having died once for all,” as one reads in the letter to the Hebrews, 10th Chapter, 10th verse.
Catholicism has always read that passage differently. “Once for all” can just as well mean that the one sacrifice of Calvary continues throughout all history made available not by the sacrifices of the old law but by the eternal and timeless sacrifice of the Mass. St Paul says elsewhere that “I make up in my body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (Colossians 1:24) What could possibly be lacking in the sufferings of Christ? Only that Christ did not offer himself in the twenty-first century in your neighborhood. Mass extends the one eternal sacrifice to every place and time that will receive it. Mass allows me to unite my sufferings with His for love of the world and for the hope of its salvation. Jesus said “what I have done and greater still shall you do.” (John 14:12) Because I am a Christian, I do what He did. What did He do? He redeemed the world by His suffering. Why suffering? We are fallen people who live in a fallen world.
Don’t forget that unfortunate incident in the Garden of Eden, the rebellion through which sin entered the world. One of the basic premises is that the innocent suffer. That any one is innocent is an assumption. St. Paul says that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) I don’t know a single soul in this world who isn’t born a self-centered son of his mother. If God’s only requirement is completely selfless love, well, count me out. My sufferings are well deserved. But God works all thing to the good! (Romans the 8th chapter) In this fallen world God allows suffering to become the price of love. Love is not just the warm fuzzy feeling that the modern world believes it to be. True love is always sacrificial. True love says that I will do the best for you, without counting the cost to me. I will bear your sorrows and share your burdens. If by being weak I can make you strong so be it. If by being ill I can make you well, so be it. If by being broken I can make you whole, so be it. Love, true love, is always and only what we give away. Christ suffered and died for our sins, and risen, He invites us to become what He is. He invites us to join Him in the work of redemption, to join in Love’s sacrifice..
The premise you are discussing is a classic. “If God is all powerful and all loving, how can He allow or even cause suffering?” Some people like Calvin, Luther and the Muslims deny that God is all loving. He loves only the chosen. The rest He hates. There are those like Rabbi Klinghoffer, author of the book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” who deny that God is all powerful. Then there are those who, when faced with the apparent contradiction, say there is no God. You would think that these three are the only possibilities. The message of the Gospel brings up another possibility altogether. The all powerful God, for the sake of Love, becomes powerless in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I’ve told this story a thousand times before but, for me, it answered the question that you are asking.
When I was much younger I had been assigned to a very poor parish. The windows were in very bad repair. Summer and winter the wind whistled through the cracks. We might just as well have held services outside. One summer morning I was saying Mass and the fruit flies were hovering around the chalice. In my mind I said to the Lord, “I believe that this is no longer bread and wine, but has become Your body and blood, but couldn’t You convince the fruit flies of this great miracle for just a moment?” Then I heard that little voice that sometimes speaks in our imagination. “When My hands were nailed to the wood of the cross, I couldn’t even brush the flies from My face.” I was thunderstruck. I could almost not continue the Mass.
To think that the hand that set the stars to spinning couldn’t even lift itself to swipe the flies from His face. If Jesus is who we claim Him to be, the visible image of the invisible God, (Colossians 1:15) then the all powerful became powerless for love of us. “What wondrous love is this oh, my soul!” as the old song tells it. When the Bible says that God loves us, it does not mean that we are just the passive recipients of a shallow emotion. It means that He wants us really and truly to be His sons and daughters. We want Him to make it all better. He wants to make us like Himself, capable of infinite and perfect love. In this sad and broken world suffering is the price of love. If you cannot understand that, you have never really loved anyone but yourself.