23 August 2011

'Can life still be something grand, even when suffering unexpectedly enters it?'

For many years I've had some involvement with persons with disabilities. Last Sunday I officiated at a wedding for two Deaf people. I regularly celebrate Sunday Mass in Sign Language. I'm not very good in that language and find conversations difficult, since I'm poor at reading signs. I've asked a number of experienced interpreters and their experience has been similar to mine. When you are learning a spoken language you reach a point when you can understand far more than you can express. With Sign Language it is the opposite.

I've also been on the fringes of Faith and Life for many years. It is a movement, born from a pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1871, that is made up of 'communities made up of persons with an intellectual disability, their families and friends, particularly young friends, who meet together on a regular basis in a Christian spirit, to share friendship, pray together, fiesta and celebrate life'.

Some of the 200 Faith and Light pilgrims from Zimbabwe, Colombia, Portugal, United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Spain attended the talk that Pope Benedict gave to persons with disabilities at the San José Foundation, run by the Hospitaller Brothers of St John of God, last Saturday. Here are the Pope's remarks, some of which I have highlighted. I've also added some [comments].

I thank you most sincerely for your kind greeting and heartfelt welcome.

This evening, just before the Prayer Vigil with the young people from throughout the world gathered in Madrid for this World Youth Day, we have this chance to spend time together as a way of showing the Pope’s closeness and esteem for each of you, for your families and for all those who help and care for you in this Foundation of Saint Joseph’s Institute.

Youth, as I have said more than once, is the age when life discloses itself to us with all its rich possibilities, inspiring us to seek the lofty goals which give it meaning. [Pope Benedict never short-changes young people.] So when suffering appears on the horizon of a young life, we are shaken; perhaps we ask ourselves: “Can life still be something grand, even when suffering unexpectedly enters it?” In my Encyclical on Christian Hope, I observed that “the true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer … A society unable to accept its suffering members and incapable of helping to share their suffering and to bear it inwardly through ‘com-passion’ is a cruel and inhuman society” (Spe Salvi, 38). These words reflect a long tradition of humanity which arises from Christ’s own self-offering on the Cross for us and for our redemption. Jesus and, in his footsteps, his Sorrowful Mother and the saints, are witnesses who shows us how to experience the tragedy of suffering for our own good and for the salvation of the world.

These witnesses speak to us, first and foremost, of the dignity of all human life, created in the image of God. No suffering can efface this divine image imprinted in the depths of our humanity. But there is more: because the Son of God wanted freely to embrace suffering and death, we are also capable of seeing God’s image in the face of those who suffer. This preferential love of the Lord for the suffering helps us to see others more clearly and to give them, above and beyond their material demands, the look of love which they need. But this can only happen as the fruit of a personal encounter with Christ. [Pope Benedict constantly speaks of the importance of this personal encounter with Christ.] You yourselves – as religious, family members, health care professionals and volunteers who daily live and work with these young people – know this well. Your lives and your committed service proclaim the greatness to which every human being is called: to show compassion and loving concern to the suffering, just as God himself did. In your noble work we hear an echo of the words found in the Gospel: “just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

At the same time, you are also witnesses of the immense goodness which the lives of these young people represent for those who love them, and for humanity as a whole. In a mysterious yet real way, their presence awakens in our often hardened hearts a tenderness which opens us to salvation. [I have seen priests who would be very tough inconfronting injustices while living in difficult circumstances and vocal in discussions showing a real tenderness towards older and sick brother priests.] The lives of these young people surely touch human hearts and for that reason we are grateful to the Lord for having known them.

Dear friends, our society, which all too often questions the inestimable value of life, of every life, needs you: in a decisive way you help to build the civilization of love. What is more, you play a leading role in that civilization. As sons and daughters of the Church, you offer the Lord your lives, with all their ups and downs, cooperating with him and somehow becoming “part of the treasury of compassion so greatly needed by the human race” (Spe Salvi, 40).

With great affection, and through the intercession of Saint Joseph, Saint John of God and Saint Benito Menni, I commend you to God our Lord: may he be your strength and your reward. As a pledge of his love, I cordially impart to you, and to your families and friends, my Apostolic Blessing. Thank you very much.

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