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Prayer and Human Suffering
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.

Q U I C K S C A N

Is God Paying Attention?
Special Places for Other Religious Orders?
The Demonic As Ordinary
Whatever Happened to Veronica's Veil?

 


Q: I have just been reading one of my mission magazines. Over and over we read of people of great faith, practicing their religion by loving and caring for their neighbors’ physical and spiritual needs. Yet thousands of people lack the barest necessities for a decent life—insufficient food (sometimes gathered from scrap heaps), no running water, poor sanitation, etc.

Yet we read in the Bible of food and drink: “Your Father knows that you need them” (Luke 12:30) and “Seek first the Kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33). Can you explain this discrepancy?

A: Yes, there is tremendous human need, very often among people who sincerely believe in God. Because the biblical passages that you cited are connected to prayer, let me start there.

We do not pray to call God’s attention to things that we fear God may have overlooked or perhaps noticed yet forgot before taking appropriate action. We pray in order to acknowledge God and to recommit ourselves to live as people made in God’s image. That includes recommitting ourselves to doing our part (however modest it may be) to ensure that the dignity of other people will be respected.

God’s love and providence for us do not cancel out natural disasters (floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, for example) or human sinfulness (such as murder, rape or business fraud). Indeed, that same love prompts us to respond generously when others suffer, whether because of natural disasters, accidents or human sinfulness.

Our honest prayer leads us to do all that we can to promote God’s justice for all men, women and children living today. We work hard at this, but we also know that however imperfect human justice is in this life, God’s justice in the next life is total.

In Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31), Jesus doesn’t say whether either of them prayed. From the ending of the story, I presume that each of them did.

Jesus also does not say that the rich man was deliberately cruel toward Lazarus, whose needs may have been practically invisible to the rich man. Radically honest prayer on the rich man’s part would have challenged any idea that he and Lazarus had very different economic situations because God arranged things that way.

What Jesus does say in this story is that human judgment does not always reflect God’s judgment. That is news to the rich man in this story, who presumes to command Abraham and Lazarus as he probably would have done had he met them in life.

Israel’s pagan neighbors who believed in an afterlife presumed that their earthly economic and social positions would continue throughout eternity. They never considered that people’s roles might be reversed.

Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta knew the face of human suffering as well as anyone who has ever lived. What she saw did not amount to an indictment of God for failing to provide for people; it fueled her reminder to all of us that God never intended people to die from lack of proper food, housing or medical care.

Special Places for Other Religious Orders?

Q: Assisi is effectively the worldwide capital of the Franciscans (friars, Poor Clares and members of the Secular Franciscan Order, plus all sisters, brothers and priests who follow a Franciscan Rule of Life). Do other religious groups such as the Benedictines and Jesuits have places comparable to Assisi?

A: Yes, they do. Benedictines look to Subiaco (near Rome) as their birthplace and to Monte Cassino (closer to Naples) as the place where Benedict’s monastic charism developed and where he is buried. Jesuits point to several places key to Ignatius of Loyola’s life: Loyola (his birthplace) and Manresa (where he was a hermit for 10 months)—both in modern-day Spain—plus La Storta (near Rome), where he felt divine approval for the new Company of Jesus.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s residence in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has become a place of pilgrimage for many people. The same is true for Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and the Jesuit North American martyrs remembered at Auriesville, New York. There are places connected to Sts. John Neumann, Katharine Drexel, Frances Cabrini, Rose Philippine Duchesne, Theodora Guérin and to Blesseds Damien de Veuster, Junipero Serra and Francis Xavier Seelos, to name a few!

We create shrines not because the holy people honored there need such honors but because we need to be reminded that in these places holy people made choices for God.

Especially in the last 10 years, many religious communities have organized pilgrimages to places especially significant to that group, attracting that group’s members, friends, benefactors, co-workers and, in some cases, graduates of its schools. For a good book on the “spirituality of place,” I recommend The Place We Call Home: Spiritual Pilgrimage as a Path to God, by Father Murray Bodo, O.F.M. (Paraclete Press). Father Murray has been a pilgrim guide to Assisi for over 25 years.

Q: Your answer about demonic possession in the December column has left me a bit confused. You wrote that “while genuine demonic possession may be fairly rare, there is certainly something demonic about an individual’s reluctance to name his or her addictions or blind spots....” What do you mean? Is this connected to demons as obscuring the truth and Jesus’ saying that the truth will set us free (see John 8:32)?

A: The easiest way for the demonic to work is to “hide in plain sight,” to convince us that a certain action or omission is “no big deal” but is, in fact, perfectly normal or ordinary. For example, “genteel” racism (“Well, that’s just the ways things are...”) is in some ways more insidious than some foaming-at-the-mouth, blatant bigotry.

Hitler was most dangerous when he had bureaucrats willing to present his plans as perfectly reasonable ways of addressing Germany’s economic and social challenges. The Nazis carried out their diabolic plans under the guise of ordinariness.

People wanting to systematize evil will succeed to the extent that they make it look perfectly normal, quite harmless and perhaps even beneficial to society at large.

Thus, many people today have trouble naming their addictions or blind spots. Defending the “normalcy” of these situations means that there is nothing to change, no tough choices to be made.

Perhaps the best examination of conscience that any of us can make in Lent 2007 will be to ask with repeated honesty: What things in my life are truly “a big deal”? Do I have any addictions and blind spots that I resist naming? To what lengths am I willing to go to protect them?

Lent is one way we can acknowledge the truth about God, ourselves and others while preparing ourselves to make whatever changes may be needed to live in God’s full truth.

Q: I would love to see the veil that Veronica used to wipe the bruised and bloody face of Jesus as he made his way to Calvary. It is a precious memorial depicting a true image of Jesus’ immortal face. Whatever happened to it? Did it get inadvertently lost or destroyed? The Shroud of Turin is available to be seen. Why not Veronica’s veil?

A: Brace yourself: The story of Veronica’s wiping the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary does not appear in any New Testament Gospel. In fact, that part of each Gospel is very short. In Matthew and Mark, Simon the Cyrenian carries Jesus’ cross (27:32 and 15:21 respectively). Luke mentions Simon and includes Jesus’ words to the weeping women of Jerusalem (23:26-31). The Gospel of John includes none of these stories. The story of Veronica’s veil, a basis for the sixth Station of the Cross, is first mentioned in the fourth-century writing Acts of Pilate.

Did Veronica wipe the face of Jesus on his last earthly journey? Perhaps—but she may have been created later (her name literally means “true image”) to explain the existence of a relic brought to St. Peter’s Basilica in the 13th century.

“The veil kept in St. Peter’s today has no image on it,” according to Butler’s Lives of the Saints (New Full Edition). In fact, this veil is not currently exhibited.

Our faith is in Jesus—not in our certainty about the genuineness of relics associated with him.

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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