In the nearly 13 years I have been serving in youth ministry, one of my most vivid experiences is one I never expected to have at all. I was a late addition to World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, having been invited on the generosity of my Archdiocese a month before the event actually took place. To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into – but the experience of being in such a tremendous crowd, being only a few feet from a now canonized Saint (JPII), and the opportunity to get a sense of what it means to be part of a universal Church was absolutely priceless.
One of the lasting memories of Toronto was the Vigil with Pope John Paul II, where the crowd swelled from 400,000 to 800,000 on an old air force base to pray, camp outdoors, and wrap up an incredible week with Mass celebrated by the late, great Pope. The small group I had travelled with had found a good spot not too far from the stage, and were in prime position to soak in all that the next 24 hours would have to offer.
Many groups had made their way to this site for the end of WYD to stake a claim to their spot as early as possible. I don’t know if they skipped Mass that morning but they were determined to find the best spots they could. Upon arriving at the base, they discovered a bunch of cardboard boxes strategically placed throughout where participants would be able to dispose of their garbage. And here is where something strange happened. As the heat of the afternoon sun began to shine down on the airfield, someone decided that these big boxes would make an excellent shelter. By the time we arrived, most of the boxes had been requisitioned by a variety of pilgrims in the choice spots to serve as groundsheets, shelters, or tables.
After a fantastic vigil with the Holy Father and a midnight concert, we drifted off to sleep for a few hours before waking up early in the morning to a cold, cloudy day. As I was off picking up breakfast for my group that morning, it happened. The rain began to fall. Steady and hard it fell, muddying the ground, getting our clothes and bedding wet, and disintegrating these cardboard contraptions. One of the guys I had travelled with commented that it was God’s great equalizer- there was no longer anyone in a privileged or comfortable position in that field: all of us had to face the cold wet together. It turned out to be a good though difficult day (I am not sure I have ever appreciated a shower as much as I did that night), but I remember some great acts of generosity from people lending clothes, food, and anything that was needed to one another. The destruction of the physical walls of cardboard made people consider the needs of the strangers around them to the point of suffering themselves.
One of the big questions of life is why do bad things happen to good people? Fr. Mike Mireau used to say that bad things happen to good people for the same reason that they happen to “bad” people… because bad things happen.
A lot of people worry about why tragedy happens. Some even self-righteously try to argue that earthquakes and tsunamis are God’s punishments for this or that wrong, or his way of speaking out against some cultural or historical sin. Yet when you survey the the pain and suffering that tragedies leave behind, you see, as I saw with the rain at World Youth Day, that tragedy and suffering are not that selective. In fact, rain is a great example… one even Jesus uses discussing good and evil:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
EVERYONE suffers: the poor, the rich, the old, the young, the worried, the ignorant: all of them experience suffering in some way, shape, or form. As a beginning, it is a reminder that each of us is human, created good, but falling short of what we were made to be (in the Church, we call this Original Sin.) Every human being is subject to it.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
God isn’t cruel. He is not trying to torture us with suffering, nor is He neglecting us by allowing it in the first place. The single thing He has been concerned with for us – from the beginning of time to this very moment – is our salvation. This is the reality that although we all screw up from time to time, He loves us too much to leave us there. So He sent His Son to suffer for us so we would be able to truly live. The fact that Jesus doesn’t exclude Himself from the need to suffer should show us some of the value suffering can offer us. In my experience at World Youth Day, our ‘suffering’ not only helped us realize we weren’t in control of the world that surrounds us, it led many to think beyond themselves and to look for ways to help those in greatest need around them. In a very simple way, it took people from being self-centered to relying on God and caring for the needs of others.
This is one reason that God allows all sorts of suffering in the world today. It has a way of softening and changing the human heart to be more of what it was made to be: learning to love and trust God and concerned with the needs of others enough to try and do something about it. Human suffering has the ability to break down walls between us and to put what really matters in life into its proper context:
Faith teaches us to seek the ultimate meaning of suffering in Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection. The Christian response to pain and suffering is never one of passivity. Urged on by Christian charity, which finds its supreme expression in the life and works of Jesus, who “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38), the Church goes out to meet the sick and suffering, bringing them comfort and hope. This is not a mere exercise of benevolence, but is motivated by compassion and concern leading to care and dedicated service. It ultimately involves the unselfish gift of self to others, especially to those who are suffering. -St. John Paul II