During the Lenten season, we receive all sort of invitations to renew ourselves – to return to God with great purity. This wonderful invitation is marked by be difficult themes in our Lenten readings. Reflecting on some of these themes has increased my admiration for our Old Testament professor at Regis College, Fr. Michael Kolarcik, S.J. He is someone who year after year has to deal with some very troubling themes in the Bible or, more specifically, with his students’ responses to those themes. One of those themes is: “Does God intend evil to happen to us?”
The key word in that question is “intend”. The question is not, “Does God want us to suffer?”, or even worse, “Does he get a kick out of seeing us suffer?” The question is has he intentionally and willingly included suffering as part of his greater plan for us. I think it’s safe to say that God doesn’t enjoy making us suffer, in the same way he didn’t enjoy making his own son suffer on the cross. But he let it happen, because he knew of the good that would come of it. On the one hand, suffering is allowed in the Old Testament, because the people have transgressed. On the other, it’s allowed with Jesus because this is part of God’s greater hope and desire for humanity.
But how do we deal with a question like, “Why do people today suffer?” Many Catholics, even theologians, struggle with this sort of question. Even someone as devout and holy as the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who publicly acknowledge that he struggled with his belief and trust in an almighty and just God after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. If we were to still insist upon giving a theological answer to this profoundly painful human question, we could turn to one of our Lenten readings from the book of Hosea, “God has struck us and he will bind up our wounds.” (6:1) Hosea seems to say, God does allow us to suffer, so that he can also heal us; he allows us to stumble, so that we can be raised up.
Many of us will spend our lives without too much pain. Having my greatest desolations as dry prayers and a frustration with academia is not exactly a walk in the park, but it’s not the same as having your whole village wiped out by a tsunami either. It makes me wonder sometimes how the people who live through these unspeakable amount of pain are very often not the ones who question where God is their pain or why he allows such terrible evils. This is where they outshine us in spiritual wisdom. They understand that through our human frailty and fragility we are entirely dependent on God caring for us through the good times and difficult times.
Meanwhile, many of us in the West, remain uncomfortable with the humility and vulnerability behind our fragility. Some are left almost squeamish around the tax collector in the Gospel of Luke, who beats his chest in the temple, and not even daring to look up to his heavenly father, all he could say is, “Have Mercy on me … a sinner” (Lk. 18:13). How uncomfortable does this character make us? Look at the reaction many have had to the beating of the chest being re-introduced in the new English translation and rubrics of the Roman Missal. The beating of the chest happens during the penitential rite as we publicly acknowledge our grievous sin. Some complain about this part of the rite stating that they would never do such a thing in a million years. We are creatures of comfort in the West. We don’t like being reminded, in our nice big churches, that we in the end remain great sinners – loved and forgiven sinners at that. It’s so much easier to just skip to the part where God forgives us and we can carry on with our lives.
How can we be raised when we’ve already elevated ourselves to our cocoons of comfort and complacency? Is the spirituality of many Western Catholics no better than that of the pharisee who thanked God he was not as sinner like everyone else because of his pious works? (Lk. 18:12). I wouldn’t go that far, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a challenge to deepen our faith. Since the conclave began, many in the media would have us believe that the Church's greatest challenge is finding a leader that will guide the Church into modernity. The real challenge, I think, is to become a Church that always hears the call we receive during Lent; a call to renew ourselves before God and humanity, so that we may have the courage to bring God’s salvific love to a broken world. I pray Pope Francis will play a humble, but important role in helping us achieve this mighty challenge!