A Homily on Suffering from Medjugorje
By Fr. Timothy Deeter
Date: August 10, 2008
The following homily was delivered Sunday, June 15, at St. James Church in Medjugorje by Fr. Timothy Deeter.
Last night, I finished another book for my spiritual reading. I’m constantly amazed at how God directs me to read spiritual works that have important lessons for my own life at the time I’m reading them. The book I just finished is entitled Testimony of Hope and it’s by Archbishop—later Cardinal—Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan. In 1975, only a few months after his appointment as archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), he was imprisoned by the Vietnamese government for 13 years. Then he was placed under house arrest for three more years, before finally being expelled from Vietnam. Archbishop Van Thuan went to Rome to work in the Vatican, and in the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II asked him to preach the annual Lenten retreat for himself and the heads of various Vatican departments. The retreat was so successful that the Pope asked the Archbishop to publish the text of his reflections.
Archbishop Van Thuan was true witness to Christ; he did not die a martyr’s death, but he surely lived a martyr’s life, witnessing to his Catholic faith through starvation, beatings and isolation and remaining faithful in spite of his own feelings of abandonment, despair, and loneliness. He says this:
Perhaps all of us have lived similar moments of abandonment.
When he was a young seminarian in Rome, Archbishop Van Thuan was able to make a pilgrimage to Lourdes, in 1957. Finding himself at the famous Grotto, he meditated on the words of Our Lady to St. Bernadette: "I do not promise you joy and consolations on this earth, but trials and sufferings."
The young seminarian had the deep impression that these words were also for him, and he accepted this message, although not without some fear.
Indeed, the words of Our Lady were for him, and they are for us as well.
"I do not promise you joy and consolations on this earth, but trials and sufferings." When I hear confessions here in Medjugorje, I often shake my head, wondering how you good people keep your faith. I hear stories of tremendous suffering, abandonment and persecution, endless sacrifice given without appreciation, being completely misunderstood, judged and condemned by others, yet you continue on, you go on giving to your families and friends. And here you are, giving again this week: giving your time, and sacrificing your treasure, to come to Mary’s shrine. Today, you and I come to God’s altar, to the Eucharistic table of Jesus. We are hungry; we are thirsty; we are lost.
At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them, because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd … And so Jesus appointed shepherds: He summoned His twelve apostles … Jesus sent out these twelve after instructing them … (Mt 9:36-10:8).
The word "apostle" is a Greek word which means "one who is sent." Today’s Gospel could make us think of priestly vocations, with this well-known verse: "The harvest is rich, but the laborers are few. So ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest" (Lk 10:2).
But each one of us has a vocation, first of all, either to married or single life, and then there are other callings to priesthood or diaconate, to religious life or dedicated lay ministry. We have all been called by the Lord. But we have to remember that the flip side of being called is being sent. Each one of us is given, not only special gifts and talents, but special life experiences which equip us for whatever it is that we are sent by the Lord to do in life. Gifts and talents are fairly obvious so it is likewise obvious that we should find things to do with our talents. …
But it is my life experiences that are not so obvious that are the things that have really equipped me for my ministry. In my life and in the lives of various members of my family, I have experienced or witnessed divorce, adultery, alcoholism, drug addiction, child abuse, spouse abuse, abandonment, poverty, over-work, illness, and the deaths of parents, brothers, grandparents and friends. So when people come to me with these problems, with these sufferings, either in confession or in counseling, I am not shocked and I am not surprised. I find that I can be a true priest to these people, as Jesus is a true priest, precisely because He can identify with us in our suffering.
In the first reading, God said to the Hebrews gathered at Mount Sinai: "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Ex 19:2-6a).
When we think of priests, our first thought is usually of the man who offers the Sacrifice of the Mass. He is clothed in vestments, and standing at an altar.
But the priest who offers the Sacrifice must also be a sacrifice. If the priest is truly "another Christ," alter Christus, then he must identify himself with that Christ presented to us today by St. Paul: "While we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly. God proves His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8).
All of us here are called to share in the one priesthood of Christ: I and the other priests here through our ordained ministry, and all of you lay people here through your vocations and forms of service. But the one thing we have in common is this: priesthood is shaped and perfected in suffering. Some of our greatest and best-loved priest-saints are well known for what they did, but not well known at all for what they suffered. St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars, the patron of parish priests, is famous for his long hours spent in the confessional. Did you know that he was accused of fornication and adultery, and these false accusations were painted on his rectory walls numerous times? His bishop, vicar general and fellow priests believed general gossip and accused him of wrongdoing to the point where he tried to run away from his parish three times. St. Philip Neri, the Apostle of Rome, is famous for founding the Oratory, his sense of humor, and his work with young adults. Did you know he was accused of heresy and general misconduct, and suspended from the priesthood for three years? St. John Bosco, also known by his Italian priestly title as Don Bosco, is famous for his work with poor orphan boys and young men. Can you guess that he was accused of sexual misconduct, and abandoned by his bishop and fellow priests as he fought allegations in the press and in the law courts? St. Padre Pio, of course, is famous not only for having received the stigmata, but also for his ability to read souls in confession, to bi-locate, to cure the sick, even to raise the dead. Did you know that he was accused of sexual misconduct in the confessional, and persecuted for years by Church leaders, forbidden to say Mass, preach or hear confessions at one point, and even now in sainthood he is still under suspicion in some quarters? Here in Medjugorje, Father Slavko Barbaric, a great teacher of Our Lady’s messages, was known for his deep spirituality and incisive teaching. Few knew how he was persecuted; shortly before his death, he confided to someone these words: "I am crucified." Another great teacher of the Medjugorje spirituality today, Father Jozo Zovko, was, and has been throughout the years, falsely accused of various things; and yet he continues to serve, and his ministry is rich because of his suffering.
And this is true for all of us, priests and laypeople, married and single people: our ministry, our Christian priesthood, is rich because of our suffering. In his book, Testimony of Hope, Archbishop Van Thuan writes that he discovered this about his own sufferings: they were difficult – indeed, they were tremendously difficult, and at times he was ready to throw in the towel and give up. But his sufferings made him a better priest. And our sufferings, in the end, make us better Christians, too. In the First Reading, God reminds the Israelites that He has never abandoned them, even when they may have thought that He was far away. He says:
You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians, how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you here to Myself. Therefore, if you hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people…You shall be to me a kingdom of priests …(Exodus 19:2-6a)
Yes, God has chosen us in Christ. Yes, God has redeemed us in Christ. Yes, God has called us in Christ, to be a kingdom of priests. But the great mystery is this: God has called us, despite our weakness, despite our sinfulness. And God has chosen us and redeemed us and called us for a purpose: to be a people with a mission. If you are suffering, if you are feeling abandoned, if you are unjustly accused, it is not because God hates you or rejects you: it is precisely because God loves you. Someday we want to echo the sentiments of St. Teresa of Avila, who knew this truth that our sufferings are a sign of God’s love for us. She sighed and said, "Yes, this is true – but I wish He wouldn’t love me so much!" God doesn’t just want us to suffer for the sake of suffering; He needs people who know how to suffer, people like you and me, so that we can be the hands and voice and heart of Jesus in our world to reach out to others who are suffering. God Himself can reach out to us in our suffering because He has experienced our suffering, as St. Paul reminds us: "God proves His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Howmuch more, then, since we are now justified by His Blood, will we be saved through Him from the wrath" (Rom 5:9).
Our law courts often urge opposing parties to settle differences and resolve issues through mediation and reconciliation, rather than through threats and punishments. So does God. But sometimes we reject God, feeling sorry for ourselves and turning in to ourselves; even then, God remains with us. He continues to call us, He continues to pardon us, He continues to love us. So St. Paul tells us this: "Brothers and sisters, while we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, we boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (Rom 5:11).
And Jesus sends us to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons (cf. Mt 10:8) armed with the life experience we have been given, and the reconciliation we have received.
In her messages, Our Lady has said: "Dear children, be assured that God loves you, and therefore He tests you. Always offer up all your burdens to God, and do not be anxious."
But let us also recall again Our Lady’s words to St. Bernadette, and to us: "I do not promise you joy and consolations on this earth, but trials and sufferings."
In response to those words, let us close with this verse from today’s Psalm:
Our Lord is good: