Human suffering is always a mystery. We fear it. We do what we can to prevent it. We pray to avoid it. But we never completely escape it. This Lent has been filled with it. School killings, acts of terrorism, threats of war, an increase of murders, even an increase of funerals of people we loved, some in old age, but others long before we expected to lose them. We have this natural, God-given, holy desire to live. Yet so many die before their time. We are left asking God, “Why God, why him or her?” 

They were good people whom we loved and needed, and whose lives blessed ours. 

Pope Francis seems to share our experiences and thoughts. I read recently in the online Catholic newsletter Crux that the pope make a special trip to the small Italian town of Pietrelcina down in the boot of Italy to honor its most famous Catholic, the Carthusian monk, Padre Pio, who died not too many years ago in 1968. He was a simple man, gruff, but known for his compassion for the poor and as a confessor with apparently psychic gifts. If you really wanted to see your soul in a mirror, you could go to him for confession. 

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Padre Pio’s compassion for the suffering of others he founded one of the largest hospitals in southern Italy, may have come from having born the wounds of Christ on his own body for 50 years. He was a stigmatic. The first person to have ever suffered this phenomenon was St. Paul. We read in his letter to the Galatians 6:17, “I bear on my body the marks of Christ” (in Greek, “marks” is “stigmata”). The next person we know of to have been a stigmatic was St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. However, since then about 400 persons have experienced authentic cases of stigmata. St. Catherine of Sienna, a nun who convinced Pope Gregory XI to move back to Rome in 1377, was found after her death to have had the marks of the stigmata. In the 1500s a Spaniard called St. John of God had the stigmata, which he said motivated him to found many hospitals. After his death, he was named the patron of hospitals. And in modern times there was also another stigmatic, St. Therese Neuman, a German woman who lived from 1926 to 1962. For many years, while bedridden, she survived without any food or water except the bread and wine of the Eucharist. She was examined by German doctors who were unable to provide any explanation for these phenomena.

All that we can say is that God’s grace and power can be seen in the lives and suffering of some holy people. But the alleviation of suffering is also a sign of God’s grace and care for his creation. Again, Pope Francis illustrates this truth by holding up some persons for our appreciation and imitation. One such is an American nun, Sister Norma Pimentel MJ. Called “Pope Francis’ favorite nun,” Sister Norma is this year’s recipient of the highest honor in the American Catholic Church, Notre Dame University’s Laetare Medal. She is the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The award cites her for being one of our nation’s strongest champions of immigrants. 

Having to flee one’s country because of violence is today’s greatest cause of suffering. It once drove the infant Jesus and his parents into Egypt. And what began with the suffering of that exile was completed on the cross. 

God is infinite. We humans can never completely understand what he is doing or why. That is why suffering will always be something of a mystery to us. As Jesus said, “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” We want our material good and comfort now. God wants our eternal good. That is our greatest gift, our greatest grace. Jesus’ life and death on the cross show us that there is no cheap grace. It always comes with a price. God does not always take away our suffering. Rather, through Jesus, he chose to participate with us in our suffering. And he will always be with us in our suffering. This is his covenant with us, his promise. As we pray in every Mass, “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you … ” 

The cross, however, is not the end of the story. Jesus had to die for the story to end as it did. He died the cruelest of deaths to show us that no one, no matter the suffering of his life or death, is beyond the grace and power of God’s mercy. We just have to want that mercy and trust in it. Then, Jesus’ resurrection will be ours also. 

“The one who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of earthly things. But the one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard … Whoever accepts his testimony certifies that God is trustworthy. For the one whom God sent speaks the words of God. He does not ration his gift of the Spirit. The father loves the son and has given everything over to him. Whoever believes in the son has eternal life” (Jn 3:31-36). 

Happy feast of the resurrection, Happy Easter! 

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnnycarville@gmail.com.