Christ’s Passion and Christian Compassion

‘By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion.’ (CCC 1505)

‘Christ Carrying the Cross,’ also known as ‘Christ and the Cyrenian,’ Titian, c. 1565
‘Christ Carrying the Cross,’ also known as ‘Christ and the Cyrenian,’ Titian, c. 1565 (photo: Public domain)

There’s not a lot of bloodshed or even a good swordfight in Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites. There isn’t much action at all, but despite that, it is a profound, heart-wrenching dramatic Italian opera (but sung in French) and is repeatedly requested of opera companies to perform because of its soul-shaking Christian message.

The curtain opens to find the mother superior of the Carmelite monastery dying a horribly painful death attended to by her grateful and devoted sisters. Outside the confines of the monastery rages the French Revolution, intent on destroying all of civilization and along with it the Catholic Church. Sister Blanche de la Force, a young nun, is experiencing a spiritual crisis as she wonders at how an omnibenevolent God could allow an obviously holy person like the prioress to die such a painful death while brigands and murderers go about the country unpunished. At the end of the opera, Sister Blanche gives her life in defense of her sisters as she realizes, in her words, “we don’t each die for ourselves, but some in the place of others.”

To the Christian, God can’t be the indifferent, feudalistic, despotic old man sitting on a throne far, far away, and who looks on in indifference at our suffering. Love could never do that. Christ willingly suffered and died to spare us the loneliness and chaos that comes from an existence without love. God didn’t create us only to condemn us to a short, dangerous life struggling against mishap, disease, the elements and the foibles of our fellow human beings. He immersed himself into his own creation. God’s Word is the source of life and everything in creation was made through him (John 1:1-5). He is here now with me as I write this passage, and with you as you read it, attentive to our sufferings and our joys.

All humans suffer, including the richest and most powerful people in the world — or should I say, especially them. I remember speaking with a priest friend, who was assigned to a particularly wealthy parish in upstate New York after working for several decades in one of Manhattan’s poorest neighborhoods. I joked with him that he was selling out. He turned to me, unclear if I was joking and said, “The rich need God by far more than the poor ever will because they think they don’t need him. The poor are perpetually aware of their need for God. The poor suffer because of what they don’t have but the rich suffer because of what they do have.”

Those who recognize their own suffering are in a key place to recognize the suffering of others. If we choose not to notice the suffering of others, then our complaints and moral outrage about the state of the world and of the conditions in which many human beings live fall flat and worthless.

Recognizing our pain and the pain of others is the first step toward dying to oneself. Through this dying, the sleeper can awake (Romans 13:11).

Pain leads us to love. Pleasure and satisfaction never does. No one says, “I have so much pleasure in my life; I now understand the pain others feel.” Becoming numb to the pain of others inevitably translates to an obsession with one’s own pain, whether real or imagined. In fact, the more we try to dull our senses in hedonistic pleasures, the more we are mired in our own narcissism.

Christianity turns the “cult of the individual” on its head. As St. Theodore of Studios (759-826) taught:

How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss. It is the wood on which the Lord, like a great warrior, was wounded in hands and feet and side, but healed thereby our wounds. A tree has destroyed us, a tree now brought us life.