Monday, February 28, 2005

Why suffer? My view of the pope

In the Feb 28 2005 Newsweek article "Precious Suffering" the pope's delicate health is described in horrifying detail. I was most disturbed by reading that on February 1st, Pope John Paul spent four hours “essentially choking to death” because of mucus-build up in his lungs that his weakened muscles weren’t powerful enough to cough up.

Imagine not being able to inhale or exhale enough for even shallow breaths, your very lungs choked with phlegm, wanting and needing to cough for your very life but not being able to. Imagine slowly suffocating from the inside. On February 1st John Paul went through this for four hours.

Why? Because he refused to go for emergency treatment, although he finally had to be rushed to the hospital where his doctors said “If he had come in 10 minutes later, he would have been gone.” Why did he refuse treatment? Because he believes in the sacredness of suffering. In 1984 he wrote, “Human suffering evokes compassion. It also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates.” In 1994 he said he must lead the church with suffering: “The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”

What the heck -- ? What’s so great about suffering? The article goes on to explain:

In the pope’s 1984 treatise on the redemptive power of suffering, “Salvifici Doloris,” he argued that suffering is not punishment for a crime or a sin. As Job understood, as Isaiah preached in the Old Testament, and as Christ taught in the Gospels and in his life, suffering is merely part of the human condition -- and can best be answered with love. “Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence,” wrote John Paul. “It is one of those points in which man is in a cetain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself.”

So suffering is supposed to provide a gateway to a transcendent experience, like meditation? Or is it (as is explained in another part of the Newsweek article) simply that in physical suffering we can most closely experience Jesus’ death by torture, which brings us closer to “God” by bringing us closer to what Jesus went through at the end of his time in human form?

Why is it so great to experience Jesus’ physical agony anyway? Even if I accept for a moment the events of the New Testament, what’s the spiritual value in experiencing Jesus’ most painful, humiliating moments? Isn’t there more spiritual value in experiencing Jesus’ moments of giving and healing, his moments of triumph, his demonstration of the power to overcome all with love? Wouldn’t those be the moments to emulate in our lives?

Why are Catholics so drawn to the act of suffering? Maybe because if we’re suffering, we can’t be expected to do much for others and it lets us off the hook of responsibility. If we’re going through great physical suffering, our focus narrows down to what it takes to get through the next hour, the next minute, and we just can’t do much for anyone else. Extreme physical suffering takes all one’s energy. It’s draining. There’s no room for anything else.

Which leads to all the speculation about Pope John Paul’s capacity as the head of the church. When will his physical suffering narrow his focus so much that he has nothing left to give the church? What’s the point of all this suffering if it leaves him incapacitated, maybe in a coma, with no plan of appointment or succession, and the church goes foundering? What’s the point of it then? Huh?

I admit, I have a hard time feeling much for this pope who I’ve mostly viewed as the annoying holier-than-thou guy who issues ridiculous edicts against sexuality, etc. making life a nest of guilt-ridden compromises for most American Catholics. But I have sympathy for his physical problems, which sound horrible. But then my sympathy goes away again because I cannot comprehend why he chooses this kind of pain (refusing medical treatment? Come on.). The exaltation of suffering is one more reason I have little patience with the Catholic church. It’s just negativity on top of negativity (at least the way we do it in the U.S. I have no experience with how they do Catholicism in other countries).

And yet I would still call myself a Catholic, just a bad one.

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