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The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

An excerpt from God and the World: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 2002), by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, pages 332-36, 333.

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Seewald: 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?

Cardinal Ratzinger: 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 experience first a 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 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.

Seewald: What would actually have happened if Christ had not appeared and if he had not died on the tree of the Cross? Would the world long since have come to ruin without him?

Cardinal Ratzinger: That we cannot say. Yet we can say that man would have no access to God. He would then only be able to relate to God in occasional fragmentary attempts. And, in the end, he would not know who or what God actually is.

Something of the light of God shines through in the great religions of the world, of course, and yet they remain a matter of fragments and questions. But if the question about God finds no answer, if the road to him is blocked, if there is no forgiveness, which can only come with the authority of God himself, then human life is nothing but a meaningless experiment. Thus, God himself has parted the clouds at a certain point. He has turned on the light and has shown us the way that is the truth, that makes it possible for us to live and that is life itself.

Seewald: Someone like Jesus inevitably attracts an enormous amount of attention and would be bound to offend any society. At the time of his appearance, the prophet from Nazareth was not only cheered, but also mocked and persecuted. The representatives of the established order saw in Jesus' teaching and his person a serious threat to their power, and Pharisees and high priests began to seek to take his life. At the same time, the Passion was obviously part and parcel of his message, since Christ himself began to prepare his disciples for his suffering and death. In two days, he declared at the beginning of the feast of Passover, "the Son of Man will be betrayed and crucified."

Cardinal Ratzinger: Jesus is adjusting the ideas of the disciples to the fact that the Messiah is not appearing as the Savior or the glorious powerful hero to restore the renown of Israel as a powerful state, as of old. He doesn't even call himself Messiah, but Son of Man. His way, quite to the contrary, lies in powerlessness and in suffering death, betrayed to the heathen, as he says, and brought by the heathen to the Cross. The disciples would have to learn that the kingdom of God comes into the world in that way, and in no other.

Seewald: A world-famous picture by Leonardo da Vinci, the Last Supper, shows Jesus' farewell meal in the circle of his twelve apostles. On that evening, Jesus first of all throws them all into terror and confusion by indicating that he will be the victim of betrayal. After that he founds the holy Eucharist, which from that point onward has been performed by Christians day after day for two thousand years.

"During the meal," we read in the Gospel, "Jesus took the bread and spoke the blessing; then he broke the bread, shared it with the disciples, and said: Take and eat; this is my body. Then he took the cup, spoke the thanksgiving, and passed it to the disciples with the words: Drink of this, all of you; this is my blood, the blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in remembrance of me." These are presumably the sentences that have been most often pronounced in the entire history of the world up till now. They give the impression of a sacred formula.

Cardinal Ratzinger: They are a sacred formula. In any case, these are words that entirely fail to fit into any category of what would be usual, what could be expected or premeditated. They are enormously rich in meaning and enormously profound. If you want to get to know Christ, you can get to know him best by meditating on these words, and by getting to know the context of these words, which have become a sacrament, by joining in the celebration. The institution of the Eucharist represents the sum total of what Christ Is.

Here Jesus takes up the essential threads of the Old Testament. Thereby he relies on the institution of the Old Covenant, on Sinai, on one hand, thus making clear that what was begun on Sinai is now enacted anew: The Covenant that God made with men is now truly perfected. The Last Supper is the rite of institution of the New Covenant. In giving himself over to men, he creates a community of blood between God and man.

On the other hand, some words of the prophet Jeremiah are taken up here, proclaiming the New Covenant. Both strands of the Old Testament (Law and prophets) are amalgamated to create this unity and, at the same time, shaped into a sacramental action. The Cross is already anticipated in this. For when Christ gives his Body and his Blood, gives himself, then this assumes that he is really giving up his life. In that sense, these words are the inner act of the Cross, which occurs when God transforms this external violence against him into an act of self-donation to mankind.

And something else is anticipated here, the Resurrection. You cannot give anyone dead flesh, dead body to eat. Only because he is going to rise again are his Body and his Blood new. It is no longer cannibalism but union with the living, risen Christ that is happening here.

In these few words, as we see, lies a synthesis of the history of religion—of the history of Israel's faith, as well as of Jesus' own being and work, which finally becomes a sacrament and an abiding presence. ...

Seewald: The soldiers abuse Jesus in a way we can hardly imagine. All hatred, everything bestial in man, utterly abysmal, the most horrible things men can do to one another, is obviously unloaded onto this man.

Cardinal Ratzinger: Jesus stands for all victims of brute force. In the twentieth century itself we have seen again how inventive human cruelty can be; how cruelty, in the act of destroying the image of man in others, dishonors and destroys that image in itself. The fact that the Son of God took all this upon himself in exemplary manner, as the "Lamb of God", is bound to make us shudder at the cruelty of man, on one hand, and make us think carefully about ourselves, how far we are willing to stand by as cowardly or silent onlookers, or how far we share responsibility ourselves. On the other side, it is bound to transform us and to make us rejoice in God. He has put himself on the side of the innocent and the suffering and would like to see us standing there too.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles and Book Excerpts:

Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI
The Truth of the Resurrection | Excerpts from Introduction to Christianity | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Seeing Jesus in the Gospel of John | Excerpts from On The Way to Jesus Christ | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
God Made Visible | A Review of On The Way to Jesus Christ | Justin Nickelsen
A Shepherd Like No Other | Excerpt from Behold, God's Son! | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
Encountering Christ in the Gospel | Excerpt from My Jesus | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn
A Jesus Worth Dying For | On the Foreword to Benedict XVI's Jesus of Nazareth | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Divinity of Christ | Peter Kreeft
Jesus Is Catholic | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
Studying The Early Christians | The Introduction to We Look For the Kingdom: The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | Carl J. Sommer
The Everyday Lives of the Early Christians | An interview with Carl J. Sommer

Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was for over two decades the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope John Paul II. He is a renowned theologian and author of numerous books. A mini-bio and full listing of his books published by Ignatius Press are available on his IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page.

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