By Debbie Shelley

The Catholic Commentator
(Second in a series)

Cries of physical agony as the cold metal of nails are hammered into his warm flesh. Looks of anguish on his face from the piercing of his heart from the sword of betrayal, beginning with a kiss from Judas, the mockery of the crowds and the abandonment of those who were closest to him. And the most difficult thing to bear – our sins as the reason he is there and will surrender everything saying, “It is finished.”

To understand the redemptive power of the long, hard journey of sacrifice and suffering during Lent, one must unite themselves with Jesus, who experienced it, and yet, with love and compassion says, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do,” according to Father Trey Nelson, pastor of St. Jude the Apostle Church in Baton Rouge.

Father Nelson, who is a survivor of esophageal cancer, has experienced suffering in his life.

“Before and after I was sick I always preached that in our suffering we are united with Christ’s and no one suffers apart from Jesus. And I still believe that, still preach that. It’s just that before I was sick and after I was sick I have two takes on it,” said Father Nelson, who has been cancer-free for 15 years.

For 21 days around the time of his surgery, by doctor’s orders he was not allowed to eat anything.

“I’ve experienced that hunger before  – it’s lunchtime, I’m hungry. But when you don’t eat for 15–20 days in a row by doctor’s orders, it hurts,” said Father Nelson. “There’s a physical pain in your stomach.

“It got me to thinking about people around the world who feel that way on a regular basis. So suffering can not only unite you more closely to Christ, but to the suffering of others.”

After enduring grueling chemotherapy and radiation therapies, Father Nelson underwent a surgery that lasted 11-12 hours and had many complications. His brother was advised to take his mother home and prepare her because, “Your brother is not coming home.”

With a survival rate of only 15 percent at that time, Father Nelson’s recovery was also painful, but there were redemptive moments in that as well. When he was in the hospital, there was a crucifix on the wall, and every morning that was the first thing he saw.

“I think there is a difference between Christ as the companion in your suffering and Christ as the cause of your suffering,” said Father Nelson.

And he has been inspired by people who have embraced their cross in their sufferings.

He referred to a Nigerian couple, Dr. Oscar Udoh and Bridget Udoh, who were involved at St. Jude. Bridget died after a long battle with cancer and was buried on March 9.

“They approached everything with a joyful spirit. The family is simply amazing in the way they embraced their faith. I would often look to Bridget when they were sitting at Mass and could tell she was suffering.”

He said Oscar, a coordinator of planning and evaluation at Southern University, would often help set up for Mass while taking care of Bridget. He said Oscar cries sometimes but still holds on to his faith.

Anticipating the funeral Mass at the time of the interview, Father Nelson said, “When we lay her to rest it’s going to be a beautiful celebration with a lot of emotion. The church will be packed, because here’s a family who’s done a lot for the church with a very joyful spirit.”

Another person who has inspired him was his good friend and mentor Father Mike Collins, who died on March 8, 2017.

“Most of us know that Mike had an expression that he was fond of using: ‘Behind every Good Friday there’s always Easter Sunday,’ ” said Father Nelson.

Getting through those Good Fridays involves offering up sacrifices to Christ, said Father Nelson.

Speaking of the Lenten season, many people will be making sacrifices, whether it’s one’s choosing – “I will do this for Lent” – or it’s given to them through unexpected loss.

“Either way, there is a choice regarding the orientation of the sacrifice – and it must be toward Christ and the heart of Christ,” said Father Nelson.

A temptation people face when suffering from a trial or a loss is to “get busy” as a way to distract themselves from the pain, according to Father Nelson. But the value of suffering and sacrifice is that one learns more about God and “what matters least.”

In thinking about the sacrifices, Father Nelson recalled a backpacking trip he and his friend took in the Colorado mountains. They made camp at 10,000 feet.

“One of the things you realize when you’re doing that kind of trip is how much do you really need?” said Father Nelson.

“I think all of us, myself included, are incredibly spoiled. I think, ‘How many pairs of shoes do you need or how many shirts hanging in the closet?’ I don’t think the U.S., as a majority, has an understanding of sacrifices as places where poverty exists more widely do.”

Father Nelson said releasing one’s attachment to things leads to less worry and freedom.

“When Father Mike (Collins) lived in a guestroom (at the rectory), everything he owned in the world was in that room. And he was happy as can be. That’s my goal.”

Father Nelson said one of his favorite prayers is St. Francis de Sales’ “Be at Peace:”

Do not look forward in fear to the changes in life;

rather, look to them with full hope that as they arise,

God, whose very own you are,

will lead you safely through all things;

and when you cannot stand it,

God will carry you in His arms.

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;

the same understanding Father who cares for

you today will take care of you then and every day.

He will either shield you from suffering

or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.

Be at peace and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.