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Theology for the common man

Is Catholicism a religion of suffering?

Sometimes we hear the opinion that Catholics, as compared with their Protestant brothers and sisters, emphasize more the aspect of the cross and suffering, cultivating a peculiar spirituality of suffering and even its glorification. It is true that suffering is an indispensable element of human life which adds not only greater realism to life but also calls us to treat it very seriously. Is this emphasis so great, however, that there is no room for the wiles (enticements) of joyfulness and blissful ecstasies which also accompany our life? It is also true that the only remedy and way to use our suffering positively is to connect it with the salvific cross of Jesus Christ by which the suffering not only receives the name of the cross but also its form. Is this cross so unique that there is nothing with which to compare it or by which to understand it? Maybe we are missing something? These are the questions that demand that we stop and reflect about the problem of human suffering, about the truth of Jesus Christ’s cross, and about our participation in them. These questions are even more appropriate as we enter the liturgical season of Lent.

Why suffering?
From the beginning of its existence Christianity has reached out to the challenge of universal suffering which touches everybody. It asks us to see it in the mystery of love that reaches God himself. Christianity doesn’t hide the fact that the good God didn’t create evil. Everything that He created was good. The fact of the existence of evil in the experience of the moral disorder of man called sin, asks to be seen first of all in the perspective of the mystery of God's justice as a peculiar “secondary product”. It is a consequence of leaving the creature free in God's plan of happiness. Then it is seen as a punishment for sin. However, it does not always carry with it culpability. Sometimes it is a form of testing righteousness before God, an example of which is the suffering of Job. God agrees to test Job to prove his justice by inflicting suffering. The posture of the righteous Job prefigures the innocent and voluntary suffering of the Son of God.

Suffering has its value in its pain as it touches the most profound strings of the human heart. Then it becomes a unique criterion of evaluating human life. Life is deemed a waste if it, is not directed to righteousness and love. It is precisely through this direction that the voluntary offering of Jesus Christ became the sign of divine love. God uses this unique value of human existence, suffering, to fulfill the work of salvation. This fulfillment took place on and through the medium of the cross.

Why the cross?
Of course, it is not about any cross that we speak, but about a form of suffering (and dying) on the Cross by the Son of God. The cross is the unique medium by which salvation happened, by which the liberation of man from sin and redirection back to God took place. In this perspective the cross becomes a sign of divine love strictly related with human suffering.
In the time of Jesus, Jerusalem and Judea were occupied by the Romans and the cross was the cruelest and most painful capital punishment in the world. To the cross were condemned only the enslaved and the worst criminals, especially political ones. The Romans generally used this punishment in relation to subordinated nations as a warning against national-liberating revolts. As such it was a sign of dishonor and shame. The public humiliation relied on his carrying the means of torture to the place of death (station of the cross) where the convicted one died a slow and agonizing death stripped of clothing and dignity and abandoned.
The social-political chain of events in the conquered province of Judea, and the activity of the authorities of the Jewish religion that tried to kill by suggesting a religious subversion, utilized the help of the Roman medium of execution which caused Jerusalem to become the center of the world. From this place the message about the saving death of the Son of God on the cross spread across the known world.

How it is related to us?
We have to speak about the cross of Jesus Christ in the widest salvific framework encompassing the whole of humankind; including the present generation in the present century. We find the confirmation of this universal salvific statement in the posture of Jesus Christ as is shown in the Gospels and in the Letters of Apostles and in the prophecies. They all indicate the clear intention of God that Jesus should die for everybody, no matter what century or geographical place. This is shown also in the rapid spread of primitive Christianity throughout the whole the world. All these reasons ask us to see in the cross of Jesus Christ a form of the unique salvific medium of God’s love toward each man related to the worst physical, psychic, and spiritual suffering focused precisely in the cross.
From the above we can draw the conclusion that we cannot see in the Roman and Jewish authorities only the responsibility for the death of the Son of God. Today’s centers of the world reveal similar or even more sophisticated forms of acting. In this context it is worthwhile to consider the role of each of us in the event that Jesus would have to come to die today. Surely Jesus also would find the most adequate medium of salvific suffering to show how much God loves men and women. But, salvation has already been accomplished in history and there is already the cross that has become the most representative form of suffering chosen by God, through which the suffering of each of us finds its full dimension and the most certain medium of the return to the prime love of God.

What is missing here?
The fullest understanding of the cross gives us the resurrection of Jesus Christ without which we couldn’t enjoy its salvific fruits. The resurrection finishes the whole work of salvation and proves the power of God over sin, evil, suffering, death, and also shows the final triumph of love obtained / ransomed by the cross. What is more, in the light of resurrection our sufferings are bound with the cross of Jesus adopting a totally new perspective of life in cheerful hope. On the one hand, it is easier to live with them hoping to participate in the future glory of God without pain; on the other hand, we can delight in them each day being aware of this purified roll and salvific mission which brings us closer to God. How helpful is this for a people who live in suffering?

Is this then a glorification of suffering rather than showing how to use the suffering in the moment of his coming? Does this exclude the other joyful wiles of life? No, taking into consideration that from the beginning those moments adopted divine dimension by reason of the incarnation of the Son of God so that they did not need extra help, as in the case of suffering. Where do the misunderstandings come from? They come from the emphases placed upon them. The Catholics placed emphasis on the painful aspect of human existence, stressing the salvific role of Christ’s cross without clear reference to the resurrection, which is obviously included in the process of salvation. Resurrection is emphasized more by Protestant brethren. Let’s avoid the two extremes, remembering always their intimate connection / union.