I write today to thank you all for the thousands of prayers and expressions of concern for me, that have come by email and letters, with gifts and cards, in so many different ways since I got sick at Christmas time.
As you know, I have had a serious sickness, Guillain-Barré’s Syndrome, which left me paralysed from the neck down. I’ve made significant progress but I still have some way to go. This will require continued patience and courage and hope from me, and also from the priests and faithful of Sydney.
That I have come so far in three months already is undoubtedly due to the wonderful care I have received but also due to the prayers of so many. We Christians believe in the power of prayer and I have been enormously buoyed up by the knowledge of your love and prayers for me.
One of my friends suggested to me that there was nothing I could do to so unite the archdiocese in prayer as to get seriously sick: he thought that I should perhaps do this on an annual basis! Of course, he and I would never have wished this for me but there is a providence in such things. I have great confidence that God will bring great fruit from what I have suffered and from the unity of the people of Sydney in their care for me.
What sense do we Christians make of pain and suffering? The Holy Week ahead invites us to reflect upon the mystery of God made man, willingly suffering for the salvation of humanity, if at the hands of others. This was cruel suffering, lethal suffering. When we compare our own little trials with what Jesus endured and what many others endure, we quickly realise that many are worse off than us – but why should anyone suffer? As we reflect further on this mystery we realise that a world without suffering would be an anaesthetised world, a world without feeling or failure and, therefore, a world without choice.
It would be a world in which we were all puppets or robots, incapable of knowing or caring about the pain or diminishment of our bodies, or of the failure of our projects, or of the dashing of our hopes and ideals, or of the destruction of our relationships.
To be human – free and intelligent and feeling creatures – is to be vulnerable to suffering in this life. Until we attain the New Heaven and the New Earth, when we will be glorified, it is our lot to have our comfort frustrated or endangered from time to time. Yet God gave a great gift to us in giving us freedom – the freedom to make choices, the intelligence to make good choices, and the emotions with which to love Him and each other. This great gift was also a great gamble for God, for the same freedom allows us to sin – to hurt ourselves or each other. Much of the pain in our world is to be explained by such bad choices. But even making good choices requires that we live in a world with a certain predictability, with certain ‘laws of nature’ which, more often than not, constrain us and are the context of our choices.
Those laws of nature mean that there will be some bad storms, some terrible viruses, some disability after accidents and many other examples of ‘natural evils’. We can’t expect every negative experience or bad choice to be corrected by some miracle, some divine intervention: if they were, we would not bother taking care of ourselves and each other.
So, suffering is in some ways an inevitable part of being the kinds of creatures that we are. What’s more, we know that we can make this situation worse. Human beings can make terrible choices, choices that end in genocide, war and destruction, in starvation or terror, in domestic violence and family breakdown, in abuse of little children or our world.
So if some suffering is inevitable for creatures like us in a natural universe, it is sadly the case that we all too often bring suffering on ourselves or our neighbours.
Can anything good come from such suffering? Clearly, pain itself is a proper part of being sensate creatures: without such feelings we might leave our hands in the fire or take terrible risks with our bodies or minds. So pain is instructive – it teaches us things. In these past few months I believe I have learnt a lot about myself and about the human condition and about my need for God through my own experience of pain and diminishment.
But helpful or unhelpful we will all suffer at one time or another. What are we going to do when our turn comes? Christ, we know, suffered for the salvation of all. He suffered so that our own pains, failures, and sins might somehow be redeemed, purified, and raised up with Him to glory. He suffered so that we might one day enjoy a life without suffering, an eternity of bliss with God and the Saints and in the meantime be able to make some sense of the trials of this world.
Christ willingly endured the cross. We, in our little way, can join our sufferings to His, can suffer as best we can in good spirit, making it an occasion of our growth in wisdom, virtue, patience, courage, hope.
I have prayed for the grace to suffer in such a way myself, as I know many of you have prayed for me.
Once more I thank you.
God bless you in the Holy Week ahead.
The Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, penned this reflection as a thank you ‘for the thousands of prayers and expressions of concern’, emails, letters, gifts and cards since he became ill at Christmas time.