Faith Formation and Suffering

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Suffering is a universal mystery, at once terrible and familiar. "In midlife I found myself lost in a dark wood," is the opening sentence of Dante's Divine Comedy, and it marks out a journey many of us know well. Suffering casts a very long shadow, which touches all aspects of human life. Pope John Paul II writes, "Suffering seems to be particularly essential to the nature of men and women." And psychiatrist Viktor Frankl teaches, "Without suffering, human life cannot be complete."

For many, suffering is destructive. The pain of physical suffering is felt not only in the body, but goes deep into the psyche, leading to anguish and horror. In many cases, it also has the psychological effect of shattering one's social identity. Perhaps the greatest impact of suffering is felt in the sense of meaninglessness that it creates. Nevertheless, many people do invest suffering with meaning, and draw profit from it. They resolutely refuse to be defeated by it and instead, give it a beneficial or noble meaning in their lives. Rather than try to solve the 'problem' of suffering as though it were a Rubik's cube, they find ways to cope with it by developing authentic values, perspectives, and attitudes. Such people are, in the last analysis, men and women of deep faith.

Faith-formation, therefore, is a very practical and relevant enterprise. Faith-formation is not merely teaching people about God and religion, but it is bringing them to a true encounter with God, and helping them personally to experience the character-building power in religion. For this to happen, familiarity with God's word is a sine qua non. "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ!" The more faith-formation of Catholic Christians becomes Bible-centred, the more will it have a great formative influence on the self-identity, values, and lifestyle of Christians, and help them face, for example, the challenges of suffering in a positive and courageous way.

Over a long period of ministering to God's People, I have witnessed how many Catholic Christians seem unable to respond positively to the challenge of physical, psychological, or spiritual suffering. Many seem to be defeated in their spirit by life's challenges - an illness, an accident, the death of a loved one, the lack of offspring, persecution and hostility of the social environment, mockery and scorn by one's peer group, exploitation, molestation, oppression, loneliness, breach of trust, abandonment, ingratitude, the remorse of conscience, etc. Such Catholics, when faced with suffering, become very sad and discouraged, or bitter and resentful, and consequently withdraw into their shells. Many quickly put the blame on God, complaining: "Why is God doing this to me?" Or else, they imagine that they are paying for their sins, and that they deserve to suffer in this way.

I attribute these attitudes mainly to a lack of authentic, deep, Bible-based 'adult faith-formation,' and my concern in ministry over the last 30 years of priesthood has been to work with the laity to bring them "a transformation by the renewing of their minds" (Rom 12:2) through the Good News of Jesus Christ. I discovered that a very important way in which people could be empowered in this area was through recourse to the Scriptures, as Vatican II has pointed out:

Such is the force and power of the word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life... Just as from constant attendance at the eucharistic mystery the life of the Church draws increase, so a new impulse of spiritual life may be expected from increased veneration of the word of God (Dei Verbum, 21, 26).

There is a special power in the word of God not found in any other literature. God's word effects what it proclaims (Isa.55:10). Therefore, the more the word of God is used by the faithful in an authentic - not a fundamentalist - way, the more it will contribute to a vibrant Christianity. Such a religious reality will provide each Christian with a positive viewpoint of faith for the whole of life, and especially with regard to the challenges posed by suffering.

Pope John Paul II has himself emphasized the need to know and to share the word of God more fruitfully in Asia: "The urgent question now facing the Church in Asia is how to share with our Asian brothers and sisters what we treasure as the gift containing all gifts, namely the Good News of Jesus Christ." He went on to stress "particularly the importance of the biblical word in passing on the message of salvation to the peoples of Asia, where the transmitted word is so important in preserving and communicating religious experience" (EA, 22).

The actual experience of several people I have interviewed bears out the above. For example, the daily Scripture readings from the Divine Office habitually renew a school teacher's spirit of discipleship and help her to face her sufferings courageously. The daily reading of the Bible, what one computer engineer calls "God's love-letter," brings him much consolation and peace in his time of trials and difficulties. The systematic study of the books of the Bible by a housewife inspires her to be active in evangelization programs both within the parish and in outreach to the missions. A doctor who uses the Lectio Divina method unfailingly discovers in times of suffering a "peace that passes understanding." A motor mechanic who rereads biblical passages that he is fond of believes that they are forming his Christian character, helping him to love Jesus more wholeheartedly. From this it is clear that, in actual fact, the word of God is bringing significant spiritual nourishment and transformation to devotees who read it with faith and expectation, and who apply it to the events of their daily lives.

To conclude, the more Scripture is promoted among our people, and is read in an authentic and fruitful way, the better will be their transformation into genuine disciples and apostles. Rather than feel timid and defeated in their sufferings, they will in fact experience powerfully that God's word is bringing them "Spirit, and life" (John 6:63), and helping them to cope courageously with all of life's vicissitudes. The faith-formation they underwent will then be seen to have accomplished what it was meant to do!

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