HOMILY FOR 16TH SUNDAY O.T. -C
20/21 JULY 2019
Sacred Scripture has revealed that there are a number of possible reasons why God would allow us to suffer. These reasons are not always present in every suffering. For example, there are times we suffer as a consequence of our decisions. In Biblical terms, this is called “reaping what you sow.” I have brought suffering upon myself (or another has brought suffering upon me) due to bad decisions.
Another reason for suffering is that it is a potential remedy. There are times when God allows us to experience the Fall now in order to “wake us up” and draw our attention to Him.
C.S. Lewis put it this way: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Pain can also bring us wisdom. Suffering can be a teacher. This is one of those things that is revealed in the Scriptures, but almost all of us have noticed it in people of great wisdom; they have suffered and have allowed their suffering to bring them to a depth and understanding of themselves and the human experience that would have been impossible without it. Pope St. John Paul the Great, taught the world a great many things; his last lesson to the world was how to endure human suffering through his Parkinson’s disease — even how to die through suffering, with dignity.
But what if a person has corrected all they know to correct and has learned all they think they can have learned? To them, and to you, St. Paul writes, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake. And in my body I am making up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of His Body, the Church.”
This reveals that there is another meaning to suffering. God could have saved the world through a single word, but He didn’t. God saved the world by taking on a human body, living a real life and experiencing real suffering and death. He rose in that body. In doing so, God didn’t take away suffering — He transformed it. God’s willingness to embrace suffering out of love has given suffering a meaning and a power that it did not have. Even more, Jesus has called every person who belongs to Him to share in this power. He has invited all who love Him to share in His mission.
What this means is that God is on the side of those who suffer. Even further, the New Testament and the story of the Church reveals that suffering does not reveal a lack of God’s love.
Ven. Fulton J. Sheen, the first great American televangelist, who, by the way, will be beatified this fall, as the Holy See has given approval for a miracle attributed to his intercession — which is beyond belief. Ven. Archbishop Sheen had this to say about human suffering:
Jesus didn't save us from suffering. He saved us through suffering.
- Suffering entered the world as a result of sin.
- Jesus saves us from sin by giving meaning to that suffering, by turning it inside out, by making it an instrument of salvation.
- Of all the world's religions, only Christianity gives transcendent meaning to human suffering.
As Thomas a' Kempis reminds us, "The cross, therefore, is always ready; it awaits you everywhere. No matter where you may go, you cannot escape it, for wherever you go you take yourself with you and shall always find yourself. Turn where you will -- above, below, without, or within -- you will find a cross in everything, and everywhere you must have patience if you would have peace within and merit an eternal crown.
If you carry the cross willingly, it will carry and lead you to the desired goal where indeed there shall be no more suffering, but here there shall be. If you carry it unwillingly, you create a burden for yourself and increase the load, though still you have to bear it. If you cast away one cross, you will find another and perhaps a heavier one" (The Imitation of Christ, Book II, chapter 12).
Let me close by telling you a story — a very true story, which inspires me regularly, when I think about it. Its about the depravity of some humans to inflict harm upon others, and how one man — really many men — endured it and came out to be heroes to many.
Robbie was born in northwest Arkansas and when he was six, his poor family moved to Tulsa, where he was reared. His dad had various jobs from sharecropper to used car dealer. Robbie worked as a soda jerk and welder to help along during the Great Depression. He liked doing what all boys did — riding motorcycles and horses. But as WWII broke out, he found himself in flight training. At the end of the war, he was commissioned as a 2LT in the USAAC.
He flew combat missions in Korea and Vietnam. On his 55th combat mission, while flying over Danang North Vietnam, his aircraft was shot down. Trying to avoid capture, he was eventually captured and taken prisoner of war by the North Vietnamese, where he would spend 7.5 years as. POW at the infamous Hanoi Hilton.
At the time of his capture, he was a LTC., and was the second highest ranking officer to be captured, and one of the longest held. Admiral James Stockdale, who was a Naval Commander at time of capture, was there longer and outranked Robbie.
At one point the North Vietnamese surmised that the two highest ranking officers had devised an elaborate Morris-code type tapping system to communicate with the other prisoners. This was a command and control type of system. As each was taken for interrogation, they would be able to communicate what was being done, what was being asked etc.
When the tapping system was discovered, Admiral Stockdale and Robbie were given extensive solitary confinement. This meant being routinely beaten, being put in small confined spaces — on flat iron bunks, with their legs shackled several inches above the bed, in shackles too small to fit their ankles — remember these prisons were built by the French to house the worst Vietnamese prisoners, none of which were more than 5 feet tall and most American flyers were over six feet tall; they were given a cup of water and a piece of bread twice daily; they were kept in absolute darkness; bugs, rats, and all types of vermin crawled over them day and night; they were not allowed to turn over ever, nor were they allowed to use the restroom; so they laid in their own filth and feces for months at a time.
As the war came to an end, the prisoners were given some relief — Robbie helped lead a Christmas Eve prayer service, where his faith has sustained him and where his fellow prisoners recognized his deep conviction that his sufferings were able to give him courage with Christ to see to the end.
When touching down in Germany after his release, he was asked how he felt: his response: “I feel like I’m 9 feet tall.” Today, on the USAF academy grounds, a 9’ tall statue of BG James Robinson Reisner — in his flight gear — stands on the parade grounds. Robbie Reisner is my cousin.
Whenever I feel like I have had enough and feel like I am suffering too much; I think of Robbie lying on a steel plate, shackled to the wall, laying in his own filth with rats crawling over him. That makes my day seem less!
We can all suffer in many ways — mental, physical, spiritual, emotional. Sometimes many capacities. But the Cross of Christ helps us in those moments. It helps remind us, that the Victory is His and that He has already conquered. When we “offer up” our sufferings and add them to His, then we do what St. Paul is speaking about:
“I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ
on behalf of His body, which is the church...”