Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees in southwestern France is the small town of Lourdes. Its population of 15,000 swells every tourist season to more than 5,000,000. Lourdes has more hotels per square kilometer than any other city in France except Paris. Ever since the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous on Feb. 11, 1858, there have been more than 200 million people who have come to pray at this shrine.
The crippled and the blind, the healthy and the sick, the weak and the strong, the young and the old, children and parents, all have joined the procession of those who have been coming for the last 150 years to seek relief from suffering for themselves or their dear ones. More than 7,000 unexplained healings have been recorded at this famous sanctuary. The Church has recognized only 69 of these as miraculous. But, this, in no way, means that there have not been many, many more miraculous healings.
The Marian sanctuary of Lourdes is a permanent witness in our day that God desires us to be whole in mind, body and spirit. Certainly, Jesus showed this to be true during his public ministry. “He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people… they brought to him all who were sick with various diseases and racked with pain, those who were possessed, lunatics, and paralytics, and he cured them” (Mt 4: 23-24).
In the gospels, there are only 31 cases recorded where Jesus healed an individual. Certainly, there were many other instances where Jesus healed people. As St. John tells us, “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written” (Jn 21:24).
Nonetheless, Jesus did not cure all the sick in his day. Nor did he eradicate all illness and disease. Sickness and death remained after Jesus as part of our life in this world. Even Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son and Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, eventually died and were buried.
No one escapes the reality of suffering and death itself. Physical, emotional, spiritual and social sufferings taint the very fabric of human existence. From the moment we painfully enter this world to the moment we go home to God, our lives are marked by pain and suffering. Whether we ourselves suffer or we suffer with others, suffering, in one form or another, is our constant companion. Undoubtedly, the pain of suffering hurts us deeply when we stand by helplessly watching someone we love suffer. Inevitably, each of us must ask the question, “Why suffering?”
In face of painful suffering, especially in someone who has been good all their life, the easy answer to the question of suffering is simply, “There is no God.” If God is all-loving and all just, how could he ever allow a good person to suffer pain? And, so the denial of the very existence of God becomes a way out of something that makes no sense.
“It is well known that concerning this question [of suffering] there not only arise many frustrations and conflicts in the relations of man with God, but it also happens that people reach the point of actually denying God” (Pope St. John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 9). But, disbelief in God only makes one’s life even more senseless. We become victims of chance with no purpose, no destiny, no hope.
Not just creation itself but the lives of each one of us provide reasons to believe in God. The beauty of creation; the design and harmony of our world and even our very bodies point to a Creator who orders the world in wisdom. The goodness, compassion and, love of others, especially our parents, stir our hearts to believe in God who created us and sustains us with love. True, no reason can compel faith in God. But, equally true, reason can show that such faith is not irrational.
God is God. That means He is infinitely wiser and infinitely more intelligent than anyone of us. Thus, our understanding of God will always be partial. How can we ever understanding pure goodness and love? If we were to be able to figure out, by our limited human reason, all that there is to know, then we would be God. There will always be things too great for us to comprehend. Even with faith and the gift of divine revelation, suffering remains one such reality.
Again and again, we question God. Why suffering? Why the protracted illness? Why the lingering in pain at death’s door? But, God does not answer us with a rational explanation. He speaks no word to our mind. He speaks directly to our heart.
His answer is personal. His response to the evil, to the suffering and to the pain, is his only-begotten Son. “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him” (1 Jn 4: 9). “And Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering…” (Eph 5: 2). The mystery of all human suffering is one with the mystery of the Cross.
Jesus became a sharer in our suffering. He entered our pain. He took even our dark questions about suffering to himself as he hung on the cross, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Mk 15: 34). Why should anyone suffer? Why should Jesus suffer? Jesus suffered and died. But, then, he rose from the dead, conquering evil and death itself. In the mysterious design of divine wisdom, “God…did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”(Rm 8:32).
It is only in a deep, personal relationship with Christ, who suffered, died for us, rose from the dead and now is Lord of the living and the dead, that we can find some strength to face and accept suffering in our lives. In Christ, suffering, with all its pain and ugliness, has become the means of redemption. Hard to understand? Absolutely! But, perhaps, the reason is this: in suffering, love becomes perfected. This is why the mind alone will never comprehend suffering. It is a matter of the heart: the heart of God opened for us in Christ Crucified as the way to eternal life.