– Fr Leonard E Dollentas
While waiting for my flight at the airport, there were also some Filipina ladies who, caught in the agony of waiting, started to chat among themselves.
Despite the facemasks, the improvised summit became animated, which required me to exercise peaceful tolerance. Thankfully, their discussions were inspiring, as they shared stories of their family struggles, their dismay with politics, their unwavering trust in God. Finally, they began dissecting the outbreak of the coronavirus.
One of them posed a rather thought-provoking question: If God is all-powerful, and truly seeks our good, then why does He allow all the suffering we experience in the world today? Why did he allow the coronavirus?
The perennial theological question
Indeed, how could God allow tragedies to happen, disasters and even the respiratory illness caused by a virus are harmful to all humanity? As of this writing, reports confirm that there are around 37, 554 people who have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus “2019-nCoV” worldwide, with the death toll of more than 813 and there are 2,728 who reportedly recovered (source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/). As the virus spreads so do the levels of fear and anxiety among the people. Where is God in these events and in this horrendous incident of the outbreak of this respiratory illness?
Christians martyrs, who endured tremendous suffering in their life, assured us that no suffering is ultimately meaningless or pointless. We believe that a loving God providentially has his hands in all things, in a way that upholds our freedom. God always has a good purpose in allowing suffering, even when that purpose is unfathomable to us. We always have a choice in our suffering, whether to trust God as our loving Father, and receive the good gift that He is giving us, or to distrust God in anger as though we know better than He does.
Suffering awakens us to reality
Sometimes God allows suffering to awaken us to the reality of our sin, our wrongdoings, how we distance ourselves from his loving presence. Suffering reminds us of our emptiness apart from God, or it may be God’s way of prompting us to repent and turn to Him.
Let us recall the prodigal son. His suffering leads him to realize that after being disloyal to his father and spending all his money, he finds himself abandoned by everyone and in desolation. His awareness of his misery after being apart from his father helped provoke his return to him.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: “Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death. Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him” (CCC 1500-1501).
When we are suffering or in anguish because of an illness, we can respond in two ways, either by turning toward God in trust or by turning away from God in distrust and anger. Consequently, with the outbreak of this disease, we can either come closer to God and continue to rely on his protection and mercy or condemn God and blame him for the misery.
St Thomas Aquinas, drawing from St Gregory the Great, says, “the evils which bear us down here drive us to go to God” (Aquinas’s Commentary on First Thessalonians). God at times allows suffering into our lives to provoke us to search for Him. This will further lead us to realize that this present life is not our final end, but a temporary test in which our eternal destiny is determined.
St Pope John Paul II writes: “In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.… Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ” (Salvifici Doloris, 19).
Offering our Suffering to God
Going back to the conversation of the Filipina ladies at the airport, after they have discussed exhaustively the possible consequences of the coronavirus, they were troubled. They were afraid not only of being contaminated with the dreaded virus but worried more for their families.
To console each other, I heard one of them encouraging others with the phrase “offer it up to God.” For Filipinos, this phrase is typically heard as a reply to a list of personal miseries. Indeed, even if most of us are non-ministerial priests chosen to offer sacrifice to God, we can offer similar sacrificial offerings to God: our bodies, our actions, our labor, and even our sufferings.
St Josemaria has these words to console us: “Suffering is part of God’s plans. This is the truth; however difficult it may be for us to understand it. It was difficult for Jesus Christ the man to undergo his passion: ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.’ In this tension of pleading and acceptance of the Father’s will, Jesus goes calmly to his death, pardoning those who crucify him.” (Josemaria Escriva, Christ is Passing By, 168).
In the offertory during the Mass, we have the opportunity, to offer up our lives and our sufferings to God. This is by simply asking God, in the midst of our suffering, to join our suffering to Christ’s, and to use our suffering. If we offer to God our fears and anxiety about coronavirus and the other faith shaking calamities we have endured and are currently facing, our suffering then takes on a whole different dimension, transformed from an occasion for unbelief into the greatest opportunity to show Him trust and confidence, knowing that it will be repaid a hundredfold (Matt 19:26).
This is why the Christian martyrs rejoiced “that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). In the light of the Gospel, we see that our suffering is a gift. We may suffer today from anxiety and fear knowing that when God allows us to suffer, He is doing so to protect us from a greater evil, or to lift us to a far greater and surpassing joy ahead.