Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Through private suffering to public glory

April 8, 2012

Death and Resurrection, the story of Holy Week, is everyone’s story, a universal story. It is a story at all because Jesus, truly God and truly man, died to deliver from their sinfulness all those who would come to believe in him, and win for them eternal life. Our death will probably not be like Jesus’ death; crucifixion is no longer used to impose the death penalty, which, thank God, is now abandoned in Illinois and more and more rarely imposed anywhere. Our resurrection, however, will be very like his, although delayed until he returns in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was hanged for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, preached, 12 years before he was killed: “No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour — waiting and looking forward to being released from bodily existence. … How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether in our human fear and anguish, we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly blessed event in the world? Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But this is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”

Those who accompany the dying, as did Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, and Mary of Magdala and St. John at the foot of Jesus’ cross, escort them to the gates of eternity. Praying at the bedside of the dying, especially praying the rosary after the formal litany and commendation of the departing soul to the mercy of God, is a work of love. At this time of year, we should renew our gratitude to those in our hospitals and nursing homes, to the hospice workers and the many family members who have prayed and sung those who die in Christ across the threshold of this life to the next. Funeral directors who place Christ’s cross over the casket of a dead person while they help to comfort a grieving family should also be thanked; and we should renew our own prayer for the grace to die a happy death.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in prison, and Christ’s grave was a prison from Friday to Sunday. Easter is a time to think of prisoners and those who minister to them. Most prisons in the State of Illinois are in the southern third of our state. The Cook County prison is fortunate in having its inmates served by Father Arturo Perez of Kolbe House at Assumption Parish. With Father Perez are several deacons and volunteers. Their prison ministry is exemplary and effective. They, and those who minister in the Lake County prison, accompany the imprisoned along their own way of the cross, help them to rise when they fall and give them the hope that is born when someone reaches out in love.

A great witness to our belief that death can be transformed is our Catholic cemetery system. Our cemeteries are directed by Msgr. Pat Pollard and expertly managed by Roman Szabelski. Catholic cemeteries are a beautiful witness to our faith in a world that often either plays with death or tries to forget it. This ministry also serves beyond the church when experts from our Catholic cemeteries are called upon to help other cemeteries in trouble or when the county makes use of our cemeteries to bury unclaimed bodies. Every corpse is treated with respect and dignity not only because it has been a temple of the Holy Spirit in this life, but also because its destiny is to rise at the last day.

The resurrection of the body is comprehensible only if one is able to see the beauty of creation and appreciate the mystery of the incarnation of the Eternal Son of God, who assumed our very flesh. It is hard to see beauty in suffering or to recognize glory in dying. Suffering is private, because we cannot literally feel another’s pain. Glory is public and can be shared, like the joy of families at a wedding party or the excitement of fans at a World Series game.

Christ transformed the ignominy of death on a particular cross on a small hill called Calvary 2,000 years ago into universal glory for all those who come to believe in him. The church, which spends her days glorifying God, is used by Christ to extend the effects of his death and resurrection throughout creation, in every place and in every time. In our place and our time, there are some who boast of their hatred of God and others who speak with disdain of the church. There’s nothing new in that, but it does call for new imagination on our part in order to speak in ways that give the Gospel a chance to be heard by everyone, and it does call for courage to live publicly a faith that many would like to see reduced to a private belief. Christ’s resurrection from the dead makes a private faith impossible; of its nature, our faith is public. Like Christ from the tomb, faith breaks forth in unexpected ways and transforms human history.

Before entering into his suffering and death, Jesus prayed: “Now glorify me, Father, in your presence, with the glory that I had with you before the world began” (Jn 17:4-5). The Father has glorified his Son and, with him, all those who recognize that Jesus is Lord. May the blessing of the risen Christ and the joy of Easter be intensely shared by your families and friends.