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The Question of Suffering; the Response of the Cross

An interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

This is an excerpt from God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2002, pp. 322-323, 331-333. The questions proposed by Peter Seewald are shown in italics. Pope Benedict’s responses follow each question. Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome when this book was written. This book is one of three interviews given by Cardinal Ratzinger. The first two have become bestselling books: The Ratzinger Report and Salt of the Earth. This third interview, addresses the deep questions of faith and living of that faith in the modern world. It is published by Ignatius Press and is available from the Marian Catechist Bookstore.

We are used to thinking of suffering as something we try to avoid at all costs. And there is nothing that many societies get more angry about than the Christian idea that one should bear with pain, should endure suffering, should even sometimes give oneself up to it, in order thereby to overcome it. “Suffering”, John Paul II believes, “is a part of the mystery of being human.” Why is this?

Today what people have in view is eliminating suffering from the world. For the individual, that means avoiding pain and suffering in whatever way. Yet we must also see that it is in this very way that the world becomes very hard and very cold. Pain is part of being human. Anyone who really wanted to get rid of suffering would have to get rid of love before anything else, because there can be no love without suffering, because it always demands an element of self-sacrifice, because, given temperamental differences and the drama of situations, it will always bring with it renunciation and pain.

When we know that the way of love—this exodus, this going out of oneself—is the true way by which man becomes human, then we also understand that suffering is the process through which we mature. Anyone who has inwardly accepted suffering becomes more mature and more understanding of others, becomes more human. Anyone who has consistently avoided suffering does not understand other people; he becomes hard and selfish.

Love itself is a passion, something we endure. In love I experience first, happiness, a general feeling of happiness. Yet on the other hand, I am taken out of my comfortable tranquility and have to let myself be reshaped. If we say that suffering is the inner side of love, we then also understand why it is so important to learn how to suffer—and why, conversely, the avoidance of suffering renders someone unfit to cope with life. He would be left with an existential emptiness, which could then only be combined with bitterness, with rejection and no longer with any inner acceptance or progress toward maturity.

The scourged Man wearing the crown of thorns is driven out by soldiers to the “Place of the Skull”, to Golgotha. Jesus carries the heavy cross; He is sweating blood. Three times, He breaks down under the burden. Veronica hands Him a cloth; women are weeping; but absolutely no one on the edge of the crowd is prepared to take the Cross from Him. Presumably because the hirelings are afraid that their Prisoner might perhaps break down altogether, even before He is crucified, they make a man by the name of Simon of Cyrene support Jesus under his arms for a little while.

Christian piety has made this Way of the Cross, which one can walk along in Jerusalem, the basic image for the path of human suffering. Certain features of it have arisen through meditation, such as His falling three times or the figure of Veronica. These are things of which people’s hearts have become aware through inwardly walking this path with Him. After the Rosary, the Way of the Cross is the second great form of prayer discovered by Western popular piety in the Middle Ages. It is not only a great testimony to an inner depth and maturity, but it is in fact a school for interiority and consolation. It is also a school for the examination of conscience, for conversion, for inner transformation and compassion—not as sentimentality, as a mere feeling, but as a disturbing experience that knocks on the door of my heart, that obliges me to know myself and to become a better person.

The figure of Simon, of course, still makes a great impression. At any rate, Christendom has seen in this an enduring mission. Christ is, so to speak, carrying His Cross throughout the whole of history. He is looking for the hand of Veronica and the hand of Simon, hands that are ready to carry great crosses.