Fr. Timothy Fitzgerald, C.P.
(Note: Fr. Timothy Fitzgerald, C.P. is a member of the Congregation of the Passion. He is a Passionist Priest of great wisdom and knowledge. Fr. Tim is also a good friend of mine. This is his reflection of getting older and all that entails)
We know it had to happen some day. Suddenly or gradually we no longer can do what we seemed to be doing forever. Limitations set in, muscles and bones ache, serious health issues appear. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. As we change and lose control, we suffer. We do find comfort in saying it could be worse. We could lose everything in a tornado, a fire, a flood, en earthquake. We know people who are in constant pain, who never stir from bed, who depend on others for every need. We see what addictions do to individuals and their loved ones. We anguish over those who lose their faith or no longer practice it. Suffering is real, whether it is a consequence of our own behavior, or accidental, or genetic, or just getting old.
All my life as a priest I’ve preached about facing limitations and suffering. Like a doctor who prescribes the right medicine, but is not sick himself, I blithely (yet truly) counseled others to see suffering not only as a mature human experience, but most profoundly as a following of our crucified Lord. I encountered so many kinds of suffering: loss of a lifelong job, betrayal, severe physical pain, sudden death of a child, temptations against faith or fidelity in marriage, partial or total dependence on others, etc.
Now I find myself no longer able to do the ordinary joys of my ministry: offering mass publicly (weak heart, weaker knees), preaching, sharing spiritual direction. I’m not in great physical pain yet, but I feel a burden to others, not contributing as I did before. People assure me that I’m not a burden, but that is how I feel. So I must return to the advice I so freely gave to others and listen myself. Here are some of the time-honored ideas of our faith, the accumulated wisdom from Christ which sustain me.
1. We own nothing to God but our thanks. God is not the cause of our suffering, he is the reason we suffer patiently. Suffering is not the result of a capricious or unjust God, for God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to be our Saviour (John 3:16). How ungrateful we would be, if for one moment we blame God or resent him. From God all is gift. (cf. Romans 5:12-21).
2. We are not excess baggage. As Christians we firmly believe we are God’s children. We know our dignity and worth does not depend on what we do, but on who we are. From the moment of our baptism when we put on Christ, in every Eucharist, in every reconciliation, in every prayer, in every act of charity in his name, we are God’s children. Not productivity, achievements, intelligence, age, health, social status, total dependency, loss of memory, even sinfulness changes that. We are God’s beloveds in Christ. (cf. Romans 8:31-39)
3. Suffering in union with Christ brings growth. Each crucial moment of life is a death to a previous security. With Christ we ascend to light not darkness. In Christian life the pattern of growth is in harmony with the death-life cycle of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Jesus did not bring the cross. He found it already in our human limitations which he took on completely, only without sin (cf. Hebrews 4:14-16; 15: 1-4). Thus, Jesus mind and heart shapes our minds and hearts. We absorb this mind, this absolute trust of the Father. We accept limitations and suffering not as an end in themselves (which would be insane), but as a way of following Christ for the good of the church and the world. Because of Christ we see the dignity and nobility of suffering out of love. It becomes purposeful and redemptive. (cf. Phil. 2:1-10; Col. 1:24, 2Cor. 4:10-11)
4. We belong to a communion of saints. There’s a great cloud of witnesses cheering us on to follow our leader Jesus (cf. Heb. 12:1-4). These were not confined, however, only to the canonized, or for those being purified after death, but also to the holy ones here on earth, who surround us, with compassion, patience, presence and prayers. In turn, though hampered, we now pray for those we know and love, for all who ask our prayers, for all in need, for our church and our world. Our faith is strong enough to believe that effectiveness in prayer and mission is not confined to the strong and healthy. After all, a tubercular St. Therese is much a patron of the missions as the globe-trotting St. Francis Xavier. Our faith is that breathtakingly wide that a handicapped person who never leaves home joins hands with a St. Patrick, or a St. Francis of Assisi to spread the kingdom of God.
These are some of the ways our Catholic tradition strengthens countless people who suffer physically or are otherwise limited. Love is ingenious and the Holy Spirit constantly conspires to educate us to new insights into our union with Christ, especially as our outer powers grow dim. People read the Passion, go to some favorite prayers, look at the crucifix, hold Mary’s beads as they slip through tired hands, gaze intently on a sacred picture, listen to EWTN or sacred music, ask a friend to read to them or pray with them, etc. We always turn to our crucified Lord who when he was so weak, helpless, seemingly forsaken was actually saving the world! May the Passion of Christ be always in our hearts!