By Prof. Michael Ogunu
President of the Executive Board of the
World Apostolate of Fatima in Africa
About a century after the death of Christ, a deacon named Euplius was tortured at Catania in Sicily, simply because he was a Christian. The dialogue between the judge and the deacon was taken down by the court stenographer, and has survived to this day. It wonderfully illustrates the Christian attitude to pain and his hope in a life beyond the grave.
While he was being tortured, Euplius said: “I thank you, Christ; protect me while I suffer this pain for you”.
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“Get rid of this madness, Euplius”, pleaded the judge, Calvisanius. “Adore the gods and you will be set free”.
“I adore Christ. I despise demons. Do what you will, I am a Christian…”
After long and severe torture, the judge appealed to him: “Sacrifice if you wish to be freed, worship the gods – Mars, Apollo, and Aesculapius”.
“I am now sacrificing myself to Christ, who is God”, Euplius replied. There is no more that I can do. Your attempts are in vain”.
Again and again the martyr cried out:
“Thank you O Christ. Christ come to my assistance for you I am suffering this torment”.
And when his strength finally failed him, and he could no longer make any sound, he kept repeating with his lips these and other words until he died.
What was it that kept the martyr strong in his resistance against the temptation to worship false gods despite the horrible torture? It was his faith in Christ, and his (martyr’s) hope of attaining eternal life. It was that kind of hope which Pope Benedict XVI in his Encyclical Letter – Saved in Hope – refers to as “redemptive hope”. In this article the writer will provide the reader with examples of men and women whose lives of courage in adversity are lights of hope for the sick and suffering in this dark world of sin.
The well-known Trappist monk writer Rev. Fr. Raymond O.C.S. produced a book which has a very special significance for those who are sick.
The title of the book is “Your Hour”. It is the story of seven people who had to carry a particularly heavy cross of illness. Most of them, indeed, had to carry it through the very gates of death. The individuals described here met their destiny with fortitude and clear awareness of the tremendously important mission they were fulfilling in life. It is this sense of purpose that Fr. Raymond is anxious to instil in the hearts of all who suffer.
The striking thing about the people in this book is that their ailments were incurable, and they knew it. Rev. Fr. Carl Miller, a Jesuit missionary for 22 years in India was brought back to the United States suffering from cancer of the pancreas. Shortly before he died he could confide to a friend: “My best work for India began when I arrived at St. Joseph’s Infirmary”.
Joan Gasser was a student nurse in a large city hospital who suddenly became the victim of the fatal Hodgkin’s disease. She was fully aware of her condition; yet she could tell a friend with a smile: “I feel as if I were just coming alive”.
John Leonard was the hard-working father of nine children suddenly prostrated by spinal bulbar polio, and destined to spend the next and last eight years of his life gasping for breath in an iron lung, yet never losing his deep trust in God. Here also is the story of how a truly Christian family reacted to the birth of a mongoloid child. Here is the account of a busy pastor, the victim of inoperable cancer, who each day said this prayer:
“Most Holy Trinity, I thank you for the pain of the past, I love you for the pain of the present Please send me such pain in the future as will make you loved by myself and others. Help me to mean what I say”.
The last chapter in the book is concerned with Mary Ellen Kelly, of Marcus Iowa, who died May 9, 1961. For years she was the victim of rheumatoid arthritis, completely dependent on others, yet she organized a solidarity for bed-ridden patients and reached an ever widening audience by her writing until the day she died.
Lozano Garrido (1920-1971), a Spanish Journalist spent 28 years in a wheelchair. He entered the Catholic Action group when he was 11 years old. During the Spanish civil war, he distributed Holy Communion to the imprisoned. His long illness began in 1942 and just one year afterward, he began to need a wheelchair. Twenty years later, nearly 10 years before his death he lost his sight.
From his wheelchair, with progressive paralysis affecting more and more of his body, he became a recognized writer and journalist. His professional life led to many publications, including reports to the Associated Press and nine books on spirituality. When his right hand became paralyzed, he learned to write with his left, and when that hand too lost movement he would dictate his words. He died in 1971. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI approved the decree of heroic virtue attributed to him.
Unfortunately, there are many who regard any form of physical suffering as an absolute evil. They have forgotten that suffering is the inheritance of the children of Adam. All the apostles, the martyrs and the saints have taught us by their lives that we cannot live in the love of Christ without suffering. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest” (Jn. 12:24).
Throughout the history of the Church from the time of the Roman persecutions until the present, Christians have been called upon to suffer and die for their faith. All the apostles except John the beloved Apostle suffered martyrdom. The martyrdom of the apostles and their contemporaries is a proof of the historic reality of the Gospel story. For the apostles were willing to attest in their blood what they had seen, what they had heard and what they believed.
Benedict XVI cites Josephine Bakhita, a modern African Saint canonized by Pope John Paul II as a classical example of one whose faith and hope in the living God even in the midst of her suffering ‘redeemed’ her. The following account of her life are his words:
She was born around 1869 – she herself did not know the precise date – in Darfur in Sudan. At the age of nine, she was kidnapped by slave-traders, beaten till she bled, and sold five times in the slave markets of Sudan. Eventually, she found herself working as a slave for the mother and the wife of a general, and there she was flogged every day till she bled; as a result of this she bore 144 scars throughout her life. Finally; in 1882, she was bought by an Italian merchant for the Italian consul CallistoLegnani, who returned to Italy as the Mahdists advanced. Here, after the terrifying “masters” who had owned her up to that point, Bakhita came to know a totally different kind of “master” – in Venetian dialect, which she was now learning, she used the name “paron”for the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. Up to that time she had known only masters who despised and maltreated her, or at best considered her a useful slave. Now, however, she heard that there is a “paron”above all masters, the Lord of all lords, and that this Lord is good, goodness in person. She came to know that this Lord even knew her, that he had created her – that he actually loved her. She too was loved, and by none other than the supreme “Paron”, before whom all other masters are themselves no more than lowly servants. She was known and loved and she was awaited. What is more, this master had himself accepted the destiny of being flogged and now he was waiting for her “at the Father’s right hand”. Now she had “hope” – no longer simply the modest hope of finding masters who would be less cruel, but the great hope: “I am definitively loved and whatever happens to me – I am awaited by his Love. And so, my life is good”. Through the knowledge of this hope she was “redeemed”, no longer a slave, but a free child of God. She understood what Paul meant when he reminded the Ephesians that previously they were without hope and without God in the world – without hope becausewithout God. Hence, when she was about to be taken back to Sudan, Bakhita refused; she did not wish to be separated again from her “Paron”.On 9 January 1890, she was baptized and confirmed and received her first Holy Communion from the hands of the Patriarch of Venice. On 8 December 1896, in Verona, she took her vows in the Congregation of the Canossian Sisters and from that time onwards, besides her work in the sacristy and in the porter’s lodge at the convent, she made several journeys round Italy in order to promote the missions: she felt she had to extend to others, to the greatest possible number of people, the liberation that she had received through her encounter with the living God, the God of Jesus Christ. The hope born in her which had “redeemed” her she could not keep to herself; this hope had to reach many to reach everybody.
The Passion of Christ shows us the enormous contribution which holy suffering can make to the sanctification of the world. By His words and example Christ taught men; by His miracles He helped them but it was by His passion and crucifixion that he saved the world. If we can unite our sufferings with the passion of Christ and offer them for the salvation of souls, we might say with St. Paul: “What is lacking of the sufferings of Christ, I fill up in my flesh for His body, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24).
The Blessed Virgin Mary revealed to Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco at Fatima, Portugal in 1917 that many souls go to hell because there are none to sacrifice themselves and pray for them. After having promised to take the three children to heaven, she asked:
“Are you willing to offer yourselves to God to bear all the sufferings He wills to send you as an act of reparation for the sins by which He is offended and of supplication for the conversion of sinners?”
“Yes, we are willing”, they replied. “Then, you are going to have much to suffer, but the grace of God will be your comfort… I will never forsake you. My Immaculate Heart will be your refuge and the way that will lead you to God”.
The examples of heroic courage in adversity and resignation to divine providence shown by the men and women cited in this article teach us all that “it is not life that matters but the courage we put into it”.
Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by; that is, people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way. Who more than Mary could be a star of hope of us?… So we cry to her: Holy Mary, Mother of God, our Mother, teach us to believe, to hope, to love with you. Show us the way to His kingdom! Star of the sea, shine upon us and guide us on our way! (Saved in Hope, 49-50).
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