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Choosing How to Respond to Suffering
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Dealing With Depression
Is This Really the Word of the Lord?
What If Both Lives Cannot Be Saved?
Is the Afterlife Real?
Are There Still Low Masses and High Masses?

Q: Over the years, I have read and reread the Book of Job. Many people who suffer go on to end their lives. I’ve seen the results of silent suffering. What if they try to have a deeper awareness of God through prayer, fasting, attending Mass, confession and Holy Communion—and yet they still don’t see God acting in their lives because of the pain of depression?

A: Yes, it is unfortunate that some people who suffer go on to end their lives. We entrust them to the mercy of God, who alone can assess all the factors involved. Numbers 2282 and 2283 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church address this tragedy. Clinical depression can paralyze a person into being unable to think correctly and make good judgments.

I think our experience shows that most people who suffer greatly do not commit suicide. My faith and life experience suggest that in the face of great suffering people have two basic options: We can move in the direction of greater compassion or we can move toward bitterness. This appears to be true whether we directly experience the suffering or are touched by the suffering of a friend, relative, co-worker or acquaintance.

Years ago, the German theologian Dorothy Söllee spoke of people who suffer as being “God’s martyrs” or “the devil’s martyrs,” meaning that how they deal with their sufferings encourages others to a greater or a weaker faith in God. We can choose one direction over the other.

Psychologists describe depression as anger turned inward. The depressed person may require a therapist’s help, as well as medication to deal with this condition, but I think we have all seen that depression need not lead to a single result. Saints are not saints because they have had easy lives but because they chose to deal with suffering in life-giving ways.

On pages 20-23 in this issue, we present Bert Ghezzi’s article, “Jane de Chantal: A Saint for the Depressed.” Jane knew sorrow firsthand before her death in 1641. Her mother died when Jane was 18 months old. Six of Jane’s children died in infancy. Her husband was killed in their seventh year of marriage. Establishing the Visitation community of nuns later, Jane strove to improve her very difficult situation.

We try to live wisely, avoiding suffering wherever possible. If, however, we dedicate our energies to avoiding suffering at all costs, we will inevitably become ruthless people. The virtue of compassion is never developed apart from a person’s experiences.

In his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton reflected that those who try the hardest to avoid suffering will, in the end, suffer the most because smaller and smaller things will cause them to suffer.

The Book of Job is indeed a treasure. Its author clearly intended that readers reject the position of Job’s three friends that all suffering is punishment for sin. Beyond that, what we do with our suffering depends on how we use our real but limited freedom.

We need to see in our own lives and help other people see in theirs that, although we may not have all the options that we might like, we always have several options—and certain ones are always better than others.

Jesus does not take away all suffering, but his death and resurrection affirm that suffering has the last word only if we allow it.

Q: Genesis 6:1-4 tells the strange story of the Nephilim, an ancient race of giants descended from intercourse between women and the sons of heaven. At the end of the first and second readings at Sunday Mass, the reader proclaims, “The word of the Lord.” Are we obligated to believe that this is part of God’s revelation to us?

A: This very unusual story is not read at Sunday or weekday Masses. The New American Bible footnote for these verses reads: “This is apparently a fragment of an old legend that had borrowed much from ancient mythology. The sacred author incorporates it here, not only in order to account for the prehistoric giants of Palestine, whom the Israelites called the Nephilim, but also to introduce the story of the flood with a moral orientation—the constantly increasing wickedness of mankind.”

Another footnote points out that Numbers 13:33 refers to the Anakim, inhabitants of Palestine before the Israelites arrived, as a race of giants, whom the Israelites linked to the Nephilim.

Scripture is the word of God in the sense that God is its ultimate author and that, except for Jesus, the Bible is God’s best self-revelation. The Bible was given to a faith community and needs to be understood with the help of that community. Biblical writers may have used pagan legends in a completely new context that supports God’s message.

Q: If a woman has an untreated ectopic pregnancy, she and the baby will both die. That is inevitable. In this situation, is it permissible to have an abortion? The fetus cannot come to full term and will inevitably kill them both.

A: An ectopic pregnancy is one where a zygote implants out of place, usually in one of the fallopian tubes. By definition, an ectopic pregnancy is a pathological condition because a fetus cannot grow to full term there. Catholic moral theology has taught that the pathological section of a fallopian tube can be removed.

Catholic moral theologians speak of the principle of double effect. In this case, the primary goal is to remove the pathology that threatens a mother’s life. A growing fetus implanted in a fallopian tube will eventually rupture the tube, killing the mother and itself.

Removing that section of the tube has the secondary effect of ending the life of the fetus—a necessary but clearly regrettable action. This would not be a direct abortion, which is forbidden.

Q: We have been told that when we die we will be with God for all eternity. Sometimes I think that, when you die, that’s it—no heaven, God or anything. Is what I’ve believed all these years really true?

A: Our faith affirms that there certainly is an afterlife. There will be a life where God’s values will prevail, where God will finally be “everything to everyone” (1 Corinthians 15:9, RSV).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms, “This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity—this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed—is called ‘heaven.’ Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (#1024).

The Catechism’s article #1043 goes on to say: “Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, ‘new heavens and a new earth’ [2 Peter 3:13)]. It will be the definitive realization of God’s plan to bring under a single head ‘all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth’ [Ephesians 1:10].”

To those who say that all this is wishful thinking, I ask, “If you are correct, how does that belief affect your decisions today?” Denying the afterlife has often been a way of asserting one’s independence from God.

In fact, God is the source of our freedom and has no desire to stifle it. God wants us to use that freedom wisely and generously.

Saints and other holy people always point us toward heaven, where they enjoy unending life with God.

Q: When I was growing up, we had Sunday High Masses followed by Benediction. All other Masses were called Low Masses, but I’m not sure why. Are these terms still used? Why don’t we have Benediction very often now?

A: The terms “high” and “low” referred to the presence or absence of singing at Mass. They are not used in the 2000 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the guide for how Mass is celebrated in the Roman rite. Singing is now encouraged at all Sunday Masses, though it may be more emphasized at certain ones.

Having Benediction immediately after Mass might suggest that something is missing without it. Not so. Benediction, a fine devotional practice governed by the Church’s regulations, is part of World Youth Day, eucharistic congresses and other celebrations. It can help us appreciate the gift of the Eucharist and then go out to share the Good News that Jesus brought us.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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