By Cardinal George Pell, AC.
Editor’s Note: Cardinal Pell pens a moving reflection on his ordeal and how suffering can be redeemed through Jesus Christ, as exemplified by His sacrifice for us on the Cross. He includes musings on the coronavirus pandemic and the early Christians’ compassionate and faith-filled response to plagues. View the original article at The Australian here and subscribe to The Australian here.
Every person suffers. None escapes all the time. Everyone is confronted with a couple of questions. What should I do in this situation? Why is there so much evil and suffering? And why did this happen to me? Why the coronavirus pandemic?
The ancient Greeks and Romans thought the gods were capricious, liable to punish without reason. It is claimed that when we wrap up our Christmas presents we are following the ancient practice of those offering a sacrifice to a particular god who would cover it so the other gods would not be jealous.
The atheists today believe that the universe, including us, is the product of blind chance, that no transcendent Intelligence exists to help explain our DNA sequence, the 10,000 nerves connected to an eye, the genius of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Beethoven and Albert Einstein.
Another option is a radical agnosticism. We don’t know and perhaps we don’t want to know. Here the agnostics can battle against fate with a Stoic dignity or turn furious, journey into the night “raging against the light”.
Easter provides the Christian answer to suffering and living. Christians are monotheists who developed from within the Jewish revelation; they too follow the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They believe that nearly 2000 years ago a young Jew was crucified on a hilltop in Jerusalem, one Friday afternoon, despised and rejected. Everyone saw him die, while a limited number, those with faith, saw him after a miraculous bodily resurrection on the next Sunday. The claim is not that Jesus’ soul goes marching on. It was a return of his entire person from death, breaking the rules of health and physics, as Christians believe this young man was the only Son of God, divine, the Messiah. Jesus’ bones will never be found. To the dismay of many this was a Messiah, who was not a great monarch like David or Solomon, but Isaiah’s suffering servant, who redeems us, enables us to receive forgiveness and enter into a happy eternity.
“Behold the wood of the cross on which hangs the Saviour of the World.”
My generation and those younger are passing through a unique moment. It is not unprecedented. We were not alive for the Spanish flu pandemic after World War I, somewhat comparable so far, and we have heard of the terrible Black Death in the 14th century, where one-third of the population died in some places. What is new is our capacity to fight the disease intelligently, mitigate the spread.
The sexual abuse crisis damaged thousands of victims. From many points of view the crisis is also bad for the Catholic Church, but we have painfully cut out a moral cancer and this is good. So too some would see COVID-19 as a bad time for those who claim to believe in a good and rational God, the Supreme Love and Intelligence, the Creator of the universe. And it is a mystery; all suffering, but especially the massive number of deaths through plagues and wars. But Christians can cope with suffering better than the atheists can explain the beauty and happiness of life.
And many, most understand the direction we are heading when it is pointed out that the only Son of God did not have an easy run and suffered more than His share. Jesus redeemed us, and we can redeem our suffering by joining it to His and offering it to God.
I have just spent 13 months in jail for a crime I didn’t commit, one disappointment after another. I knew God was with me, but I didn’t know what He was up to, although I realised He has left all of us free. But with every blow it was a consolation to know I could offer it to God for some good purpose like turning the mass of suffering into spiritual energy.
The roots of our health services are deeply rooted in the Christian tradition of service, their continuing work of long hours and with a lively danger of infection. It wasn’t like this in pagan Rome where Christians were unique because they stayed with their sick and nursed them in times of plague. Even Galen, the best known ancient physician, fled to his country estate during the plague.
Kiko Arguello, co-founder of the Neocatechumenal Way, claims that a fundamental difference between God-fearers and secularists today is found in the approach to suffering. Too often the irreligious want to eliminate the cause of the suffering, through abortion, euthanasia, or exclude it from sight, leaving our loved ones unvisited in nursing homes. Christians see Christ in everyone who suffers — victims, the sick, the elderly — and are obliged to help.
That is part of the Easter message of the Risen Christ.