A 'sorrowful' band of missionary disciples? The role of suffering in evangelization

(Sam Lucero | CNS photo)

“In all human sorrows, nothing gives comfort but love and faith. And in the sight of Christ’s compassion for us, no sorrow is trifling.” —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

All of us here in the Archdiocese of Detroit have heard Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron’s emphatic call to become a “joyful band of missionary disciples.” This expression echoes what Christ calls us to be, emphasizing as it does the following Gospel themes:

  • Joy, a fruit of the Holy Spirit;
  • Communion, the spiritual union by which we are bound together with Christ and each other;
  • Mission, in that Christ sends us to share with all people His love and the Good News of salvation in Him;
  • and Discipleship, because we can only share with others what we ourselves possess, namely, the truth, beauty, and goodness of a life spent following Jesus.

Is life all about joy? Anyone who has thought about human existence for 10 seconds knows the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Joy is essential to the Christian life, allowing us to radiate the life of Christ and the hope of the Gospel. But joy is not the only such essential element of Christianity, and joy is not to be equated with what we often label “happiness.”

This week’s observance of the memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows (Sept. 15, replaced this year because it falls on a Sunday), as well as the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, are reminders of the uncomfortable yet essential truth that life is not only about joy, but also includes its share of suffering. And sometimes we might think we are enduring more than our share of suffering.

Some of us might remember from our school days a few lines about the lesson-learning value of suffering from Robert Browning Hamilton:

“I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When Sorrow walked with me.”

Sorrow and suffering can teach us many and vital truths about the meaning of life, indeed. But what does it mean for a Christian to feel weighed down by suffering? Is that OK? Is it normal? Must we feel joyful all of the time?

When asking such questions, much depends on how you define your terms. Words like “OK,” “normal,” and “feel” are all open to different meanings or shades of meaning. But keeping things as simple as possible, we ought to know and accept that sorrow is a significant part of life, that it was a significant part of Jesus’ earthly life and the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Christ was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with infirmity” (Isaiah 53:3). We know that a sword of sorrow pierced Mary’s soul as she shared in the Passion of her Son (Luke 2:35). We sing while praying the Stations of the Cross in the traditional hymn Stabat Mater:

“Through her heart, His sorrow sharing,
all His bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

O how sad and sore distressed
was that Mother, highly blest,
of the sole-begotten One.”

Mary is the first and greatest of all of Christ’s disciples. The hallmark call of discipleship is the summons to “take up your cross and follow” the Lord Jesus. So, sorrow is a necessary part of the Christian life. And we will at times feel the weight of that sorrow more dramatically than at other times. It is unrealistic to think that we will always feel joy at the level of our emotions or psychological experience, even though the Holy Spirit still causes joy to be present in the depths of our hearts.

We will at times feel the weight of sorrow more dramatically than at other times. It is unrealistic to think that we will always feel joy at the level of our emotions or psychological experience, even though the Holy Spirit still causes joy to be present in the depths of our hearts.

Some Catholics are especially blessed by God with the gift of feeling joy and communicating joy to others. We have probably all met men and women who seem always to be filled with a spirit of joy. While such joyful Christians do much to attract others to Christ and His Church, theirs isn’t the only way of being faithful to Christ or sharing the Gospel.

There are many Catholics who by temperament or because of the circumstances of their lives are more serious in their outlook and self-presentation. No Catholic ought to spend his life being grim all the time, or looking sad all the time. But a certain seriousness can also help others appreciate the gravity of life and of their decision for or against Christ. It takes more than one kind of approach to draw all the different kinds of people to Christ.

Those who are sorrowful at heart need to unite their sufferings to Christ crucified, and to know they have a loving Mother ready to help them in Our Lady of Sorrows. When we turn to Jesus and Mary in all of life’s difficulties, we do not necessarily suffer less, but we do discover richer meaning in our suffering, the holiest companionship possible, and the strength to keep going through what Psalm 23 calls “the dark valley” to the “green pastures” promised by the Lord to those who are faithful to Him.

In other words, there is a kind of “joyful sorrow” the Christian experiences that is unlike any mere emotion. Such a disciple is not artificially happy all the time, but he or she is also not utterly bogged down by sadness. This approach reverences the deep and abiding joy given by the Holy Spirit, while also reverencing the sorrow life brings and that mysteriously brings closer union with Christ and, ultimately, greater joy.

This sorrowful discipleship is missionary because everyone in the world suffers, but the world provides no satisfying answer to the problem of suffering. Only in Christ do we discover the way of the Cross that leads to Resurrection and true life. In seeing the joyful, hopeful suffering of Christ’s disciples, others are attracted to Him.

None of this is easy, but Christ never promised that the pilgrimage of this earthly life would be easy. He promised He would be with us always (Matthew 28:20), that while we will have troubles in the world, He is victorious over the world (John 16:33), and that He has prepared a place of perfect joy and peace in the household of our heavenly Father (John 14:3), where every tear will be wiped away and we will live with God forever.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.