Thursday, August 28, 2014

We need the Pope to know how to suffer, A reflection on the Sunday Gospel

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 31, 2014
Matthew 16:21-27

Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.

It was not by coincidence, but rather according to the divine will that our Savior gave his apostles the first prediction of his passion only after he had indicated the establishment of Peter as prince and supreme Shepherd of the Church on earth.

Christ knew that the faithful would be unable to bear his bitter passion without the visible sign of unity and peace given us in the Pope. And, if the passion of Christ is too great to bear without the Papacy, it follows necessarily that none can embrace the spiritual meaning of suffering without the guidance, support, and protection of the Holy Father in Rome.

The biblical text and context

The passage given in today’s Gospel follows immediately upon that of last Sunday: Peter’s confession of faith and the gift of the keys. Furthermore, this prediction of the passion it itself followed by the Transfiguration of our Savior on Mount Tabor. From this, we glean several points.

First, notice that until now our Lord has told his disciples nothing of his coming sufferings, and of the great rejection that he would endure in Jerusalem. It seems that they were entirely unprepared for the prediction of death which Christ makes in Caesarea Philippi.

The Fathers of the Church generally state that the Lord directs the apostles to his coming sufferings, so as to lessen the scandal they will endure in seeing his bitter passion.  For, having received Peter’s confession that he is the Christ and Son of God, it was needful that our Savior should also affirm his true humanity in which he would suffer and so overcome both sin and death. (cf. Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas)

However, had St. Peter not confessed the truth of our Lord’s divinity, and united the apostles in this true confession, our gentle Jesus would not (it seems) have made this prediction of the passion – lest they should be overcome with too great a sorrow.

The suffering of Christ and our own – “Get behind me,” or “Follow me”

Notice that our Savior, though he calls Peter “Satan” as playing the part of the adversary and tempter (while, obviously, our Lord suffered no internal struggle or temptation to flee from his passion, since his human will was ever in perfect accord with is divine will. For more on this, see the condemnation of the impious Theodore of Mopsuestia in the Second Council of Constantinople), does not rebuke the Prince of the Apostles in the same manner in which he dismissed Satan during the temptation in the desert.

Previously, Jesus had said Be gone, Satan. Now, the Lord states, Get behind me, Satan. The Church Fathers affirm that the Savior is calling Peter to unite every future suffering with his own ignominious passion.

The early writer, Origen, witnesses to this tradition: “Yet the words in which Peter and those in which Satan are rebuked, are not, as is commonly thought, the same; to Peter it is said, Get thee behind me, Satan; that is, follow me, thou that art contrary to my will; to the Devil it is said, Go thy way, Satan, understanding not 'behind me,' but 'into everlasting fire.' He said therefore to Peter, Get thee behind me, as to one who through ignorance was ceasing to walk after Christ.”

Hence, we are meant to understand that the Lord is inviting Peter and all Christian disciples to follow behind our Savior in his bitter passion – even as Simon the Cyrenian followed behind our Lord in the Way of the Cross. Or, as Blessed Thomas would say later, Let us also go that we may die with him. (John 11:16)

And here we begin to see the meaning of our sufferings, and to recognize that our sufferings will only have meaning and value if they be united to the passion of the Christ. Hence, if we state that the Lord willed to predict the passion only after establishing the Papacy, it follows necessarily that we will be able to understand every suffering we endure only insofar as we are united to the Pope.

Suffering and the Body of Christ

[I] now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church  (Colossians 1:24)

Notice first the attitude that St. Paul has toward his sufferings – I now rejoice in my sufferings. As he endures many trials and pains, the Apostle is yet joyful, as these sufferings are united to those of his Lord.

Second, consider the fruit of these sufferings: I fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ. Here, we must affirm that there was no lack in the passion of our Savior – indeed, a single drop of his Most Precious Blood was sufficient not only to redeem this word, but to redeem a thousand worlds (and infinitely more). However, St. Paul states those things that are wanting as referring to the whole Christ (totus Christus) which is the Body, including Head and members. In Christ the Head, there is no lack and no need, but in the members of his Body, there is much need to suffer and so merit salvation.

And here we quickly recognize why it is most necessary that we be united to the Pope so as to suffer joyfully. It is precisely because of the value of suffering for the redemption, not only of the Apostle’s own soul but also of the souls of countless others, that makes the bitter anguish to be most sweet and joyful. Only insofar as we are able to merit through suffering does that suffering have any real meaning – even as the passion of the Christ has the greatest value insofar as he merited by it not only the glorification of his mortal body, but also the salvation of the whole world.

And so, suffering is valuable insofar as a by it a man is able to merit increase in grace both for himself and for others. Further, the sufferings of the saints are a veritable treasury of graces which are given the Church to be dispensed as indulgences for the souls in purgatory and also for the living.

However, a man may only merit (whether for himself or for another) insofar as he is incorporated into Body of Christ which is the Holy Catholic Church – for suffering is of value only insofar as it is mystically united to the sufferings of Christ. Hence, it is clear that suffering will have value only insofar as a man is bound to Christ by the visible head and source of unity of the Church on earth, the Pope in Rome.

As a final point, to further illustrate this truth, we consider briefly that an indulgence is granted upon the condition that a man pray for the intentions of the Holy Father. Here we see a practical discipline of the Church which affirms this theological point: the value of my acts (and especially my suffering) is able to be further enriched by the merits gained by the saints through their sufferings only insofar as I am united to the Pope.

A personal relationship with Jesus won’t be enough

From all that has been said above, it is now clear why most protestants (even pastors and theologians) are unable to develop a proper theology of suffering. As they have broken away from the visible unity given by the Pope and instead stress a “personal relationship” with Jesus, and further as they have all but lost any notion of “merit”, they are incapable of enduring sufferings for the sake of Christ’s Body which is the Church.

So long as it is “just me and Jesus,” my sufferings will only be valuable to me or to Jesus. Clearly, our Lord is not in need of my sufferings, so now they are good only for me. Yet, if I have already been “saved”, I too have no need of merit or increase of grace through suffering. And therefore, my suffering is deprived of any value or meaning.

Furthermore, we must stress that it is precisely this idea of “me and Jesus” which has led to the ridiculous question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Setting aside the fact that there are no “good people” other than Jesus and Mary (among the human race), we further note that the question fails to recognize the value that the suffering of one can have for the whole Church.

As soon as a man separates himself from the Pope in Rome, he is alone with Jesus and no longer sees his trials as capable of being of any benefit to others. Yet, so long as a man is united to the whole Church through the gift of the Papacy, he is able to joyfully offer his sufferings for the sanctification of his brethren.


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