"A lay Catholic perspective"

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Suffering and the Call to

Christian Leadership

by Neil MacDonald


S AINT AUGUSTINE GAVE a long sermon about Christian pastors. In it he described the attitude that mature, dedicated Christians have towards suffering. "When they hear of the trials that are coming, some men arm themselves more and, so to speak, are eager to drain the cup. The ordinary medicine of the faithful seems to them but a small thing; for their part they seek the glorious death of the martyrs." Strong medicine indeed! Although by Baptism we are all called to drink the cup of suffering, not everyone can be wholehearted about drinking it to the dregs.

Jesus invites Christian leaders, ordained or lay, to embrace suffering, even if our lives are not actually demanded of us. Moses, the pre-eminent leader of Israel, accepted suffering both for himself and for his people. He dared to argue with God when the Lord was at the point of destroying the Israelites and starting over. Moses did catastrophically fail once, however.

The Israelites were complaining about their poor food and lack of water. They had been complaining since the other side of the Red Sea and Moses was fed up with them. He and Aaron prayed at the Tent of Meeting and the Lord directed Moses to take the branch and call the community together, you and your brother Aaron. Then, in full view of them, order this rock to release its water.

When the assembly had been called, Moses lost his temper. He then said to them, "Listen now, you rebels. Shall we make water gush from the rock for you?" Moses then raised his head and struck the rock twice with the branch; water gushed out in abundance, and the community and their livestock drank. Yahweh then said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not believe that I could assert my holiness before the Israelites' eyes, you will not lead this assembly into the country which I am giving them" (Num 20:10-12).

The Lord had not directed Moses to hit the rock (at least not in anger), only to call water from it. In this way, God could reveal his mercy and compassion to a difficult people. Instead, Moses lost his temper and demonstrated far more wrath than mercy.

While Moses must have been near the breaking point at the rock of Meribah, I dare not judge him. How many of us would have endured as well as Moses through all his pressures and sorrows? Certainly not I.

Good shepherds in our own time

John Paul II is a shepherd of Moses' stature. He recognizes his sufferings as an instrument of leadership, as a way of bringing God's power into the Church when nothing else will do. The Pope had just returned from the hospital where he was recovering from hip replacement surgery when he shared the following thoughts:

"I understand that I have to lead Christ's Church into this third millennium by prayer, by various programs, but I saw that this is not enough: She must be led by suffering, by the attack 13 years ago and by this new sacrifice. Why now, why in this Year of the Family? Precisely because the family is threatened, the family is under attack. The Pope has to be attacked, the Pope has to suffer, so that every family may see that here is, I would say, a higher Gospel: the Gospel of suffering by which the future is prepared.... Again I have to meet the powerful of the world and I must speak. With what arguments? I am left with the subject of suffering. And I want to tell them 'understand it, think it over!'... I meditated on all this and thought it over again during my hospital stay...." ( Sunday Angelus Message, May 1994).

Few will dispute the effectiveness of John Paul II's ministry. We can now see through his eyes that the key to his success is suffering, a suffering freely accepted and embraced for the good of everyone.

Love one another as I have loved you

What about us? We have looked at the lives of past and present religious heroes. How about ordinary people like ourselves? Jesus explained that anyone who is trustworthy in little things is trustworthy in great; anyone who is dishonest in little things is dishonest in great (Lk 16:10-11). The Sermon on the Mount is about suffering in little things.

Offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well; if someone wishes to go to law with you to get your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone requires you to go one mile, go two miles with him. Give to anyone who asks you, and if anyone wants to borrow, do not turn away (Mt 5:38-42).

If we are fearful to suffer at this fundamental level, how can the Lord entrust us with greater things? Jesus pointed to himself as a model. We are to lay down our lives for each other as he laid down his life for us (cf. Jn 15:13). He immediately added that we must lay down our lives as his friends and that we are his friends if we do what he commands us. Jesus lived this teaching perfectly and calls us to imitate him.

Now let me be clear on one thing. We are not to go looking for suffering. If we are faithful in the usual sufferings of Christian life, the Lord will raise us up to greater sufferings as Christian leaders. Saint Paul endured physical hardships for the Gospel: and, besides all the physical things, there is day in day out, the pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. If anyone weakens, I am weakened as well; and when anyone is made to fall, I burn in agony myself (2 Cor 11:28-29). Like Saint Paul, Moses, and John Paul, we should be willing to be misunderstood or resented at times. Then we have the opportunity to bear authentic witness to the Son of God who pleaded with him from the cross, "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing" (Lk 23:34).

The extra mile

One suffering that all leaders must accept is the process of facing our own limitations. Moses' limitations were revealed at the rock of Meribah. It was simply impossible that his personality could so fundamentally change for the different kind of leadership needed beyond the Jordan. The Israelites would then need a military leader and a leader who would allow the tribes to take the initiative in spreading out and occupying the land. Moses' great power and personality were an asset in the desert but an obstacle in the promised land. He accepted God's decision and went off to die by himself. How did God really regard Moses? As a failure because of Meribah? Hardly! Saint Peter saw Jesus talking with two men at his transfiguration; they were Moses and Elijah, appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem (Lk 30-31). Let us hope for a fragment of the regard which the Lord held for Moses. When we are called to decrease as John the Baptist was, let us also rejoice in the bridegroom Jesus, and not dwell on our lesser stature. But that decrease does not come without suffering.

Suffering in a Christian is not something to discourage us, but a challenge of love. Saint Paul tells us to run to win. I punish my body and bring it under control, to avoid any risk that, having acted as herald for others, I myself may be disqualified (1 Cor 9:27). Our purpose in suffering with Christ is to win our salvation and the salvation of others. With Saint Augustine, let us drain the cup so that many will win the race.