Among the world’s religions, even when compared with other versions of Christianity, Catholicism is unique in its theology of suffering and in the attention it pays to the Cross of Christ. Our church’s, sometimes our persons, are adorned with crucifixes. You’ll find the fourteen Stations of the Cross on the walls of almost every Catholic Church you enter. Every year we celebrate Passion/Palm Sunday the week before Easter, recalling first Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem only five days before His crucifixion, then His death on the Cross with a communal reading of the Passion narrative from one of the gospels. And then, of course, there’s Good Friday, with another communal reading of the Passion, followed by veneration of the Cross.
Also each year, on Sept. 14, we celebrate a Feast called “the Exaltation” or “the Triumph of the Cross.” This year Sept 14 falls on a Sunday, and so many more Catholics get to celebrate it than would be the case if it fell on a weekday.
Is this focus on the Cross of Christ and our participation in it morbid or perverse or unwholesome? I heard about a priest recently who scolded a woman for teaching the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary to children. It would frighten them, he thought. I once had a parishioner thank me for not having a crucifix in the rectory office. They’re so depressing, she said. Another parishioner attended a Protestant service and was enchanted by the giant butterfly on the wall behind the altar, where in a Catholic church there would usually be a crucifix.
The centrality of the Cross in Catholic theology and devotion is not there to promote a cult of suffering for its own sake, nor to depress or dishearten us. It’s there to remind us of the greatness of God’s love and humility on the one hand, the horror of sin on the other, and to show us that what is inevitable in life and seemingly only destructive, namely suffering and death, is in fact a path to spiritual maturity and new and eternal life.
Most of us, I think, for all our church-going, are really practitioners of what we might call natural religion. The uniqueness of our Catholic faith has yet to take really deep root in us. We see suffering as bad, pure and simple. We pray to God to take it away. If he does, we’re happy. If he doesn’t, we’re disappointed. Still, on our better days, even apart from our Catholic faith, we realize that there’s something ennobling about accepting suffering bravely and gracefully, and we revere those who make great sacrifices for the good of others. Besides all the tragedy of 9/11, we’re deeply moved by images of firefighters running up and into the Twin Towers while everyone else was running down and out. Self-sacrifice inspires because it speaks to what is best in human beings. Patient, joyful endurance awes us, both because we don’t have it ourselves and wish we did, and because it seems to come from someplace other than this world.
Fr. Benedict Groeschel tells of going to visit a woman who for decades had to live in an iron lung. This was before they had invented respirators. She was encased in a great metal container, in which air pressure waxed and waned, emptying and filling her lungs, which didn’t work on their own. Only her head protruded from the metal shell. A mirror at an angle over her head enabled her to see visitors. Fr. Groeschel visited her the first time with great trepidation, wondering what he could possibly say to console this woman. He needn’t have worried. In the end, he would visit her when he needed a pick-me-up, so radiant and peaceful and joyful was she. Jesus was everything to her, and she felt honored to hang on the Cross with him.
I have to tell you, that’s way beyond me. If I have a bit of a headache, you don’t want to be around me. But I know grace when I see it. I know the overcoming of human self-centeredness and self-pity when I see it. Call it the triumph of one’s better self over one’s lesser self, or of grace over nature, or the flowering of the seed of sanctity. Whatever you call it, it certainly seems that the very best in us, that which is most exalted, often comes with the embrace of the Cross.
The Church isn’t morbid or perverse in its focusing on the Cross. She exalts the Cross because through the Cross we are exalted.