Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
May Christ bless you with every good thing! Even in our suffering, we know that Christ is always present, and through our union with him in his own suffering, our suffering, just like his, can lead to redemption. God does not will our suffering. Yet, because of the reality of sin and the mystery of evil, suffering exists in creation. God uses even our suffering in this life to purify our lives, to spur our deeper conversion, and to unite us with Christ. In this way, God is able to bless us, not only with the good he wills for us, but even through the suffering he does not will.
How little our culture understands this! Because of our culture’s materialism and utilitarianism, suffering is seen only as an evil to be avoided. Even the notion of sacrifice for a greater good is becoming part of this blanket rejection of suffering. Regardless of how trivial, we so often refuse to accept the reality of suffering or the possibility of good resulting from it. We turn to modern medicines, or to illicit drugs and alcohol, or to constant distractions like television and the internet, to dull our senses to suffering. We even close our hearts to compassion for the suffering of others.
This is why religion, especially Christianity, is so unpopular. Christ suffered for us. Christ proved suffering is not meaningless. We cannot imagine that all suffering is meaningless evil and still believe in Christ. Those who think this way have no reason for such basic acts as fasting, for example. Fasting requires us to embrace our hunger for a short time. It means the sacrifice of one good – a satisfying meal right now – for the sake of a greater good. Yet, because of our culture, many of us fast only when forced to on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
The same is true of chastity. Chastity excludes sexual activity before or outside of marriage, as well as pornography and other abuses of the gift of sexuality. The great goods that flow from the virtue of chastity, for the individual, the family, and society, are prized far less by our culture than sensual pleasures. Our cultural demand, “If it feels good, do it,” is pretty much the opposite of the Gospel.
In our baptism, we were all conformed to Christ. We became members of his mystical body, the church, and were given a share of his divine life. The other sacraments, especially confession and holy Communion, keep us strong in our faith and reconcile us again with God when we have strayed. Confirmation empowers us to participate personally in the mission of the church to save souls. The whole life of the church, all our traditional disciplines and practices, are meant to build us up in this one effort.
In the past, it often times seemed a little easier to be a good disciple of Christ. When a people’s culture is well-formed by the values of the Gospel – as ours used to be – secular institutions reinforce, rather than oppose, basic truths like the mystery of suffering. People are taught the same fundamental truths, both in the church and in the world.
Today, however, we do not have such support from our culture. The rejection of any possible good in suffering that I’m touching on here is only one aspect of this. But it is a particularly powerful, fundamental idea, which forms (or rather malforms) one’s conscience and implies many other rejections of basic Christian ideas. We see this all around us.
Our mission, as disciples, is to save souls. We know only one way to do this, just as Jesus Christ commanded us, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20).
But this making disciples requires us to work towards conversion in several layers. One layer is our personal, faithful witness to Christ, even when it costs us to be faithful. Another layer is the sacramental union with Christ which he established for all his disciples, beginning with baptism itself. Yet another, however, is the “inculturation” of the Gospel in secular institutions.
Materialism is a lie, which needs to be replaced with the truth that God exists and loves us. Utilitarianism is a lie, which needs to be replaced with the truth that every human person has intrinsic worth and dignity. We don’t search out ways to suffer, yet when it happens, the rejection of suffering is a lie, which must be replaced with the truth of the cross as the only way to heaven.
The church has always understood that God desires a just, peaceful world, in which church and state – while separate – can still cooperate because they share basic truths. A worldly culture committed to lies like these cannot bring about either peace or justice. The world must come to know God again.
May our faithful discipleship to Jesus Christ clearly proclaim his saving love every day! Let us continue to pray for each other and for the world in which we live. We must do our part, encouraged by God’s promise to remain with us always.
Your brother in Christ,
Most Reverend R. Walker Nickless
Bishop of Sioux City