The summer weather stayed with us throughout most of September, but we are definitely now in the fall of the year. The leaves are changing color and falling, and we are entering into that time of year when plants go dormant, skies turn grey and cold winds begin to blow. During this time of year, it is normal for us to grow reflective about our lives, the brevity of our time on earth and our own mortality.
As we come closer to the close of the liturgical year, the readings that we will hear proclaimed at Mass will focus on the “last things” – death, resurrection, the last judgment and our final fulfillment in the Kingdom of God. In this way, the Church helps us to reflect upon life, death and the life to come.
As members of the Church, we are on a journey — a journey that includes both struggle and transformation. The Second Vatican Council document, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium), refers to the Church as a “Pilgrim Church.” We are a pilgrim people, ever in need of conversion and renewal as we make our way to our final destination. (See Lumen gentium, 48) Our journey as Christians is one of hope.
A pilgrimage, of course, is not about wandering aimlessly; it is a journey with a purpose. We Christians live in this world with an understanding that this is not our permanent home. We are on a journey to the Promised Land, the Kingdom of God. We are an imperfect people in need of God’s transforming love, and we are on our way to our ultimate fulfillment. This journey requires faith, prayer, a realization of our need for God’s mercy, and a willingness to extend that mercy to others. The possibility of transformation and renewal gives us hope amidst our struggles.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul refers to a truth, to which all of us can relate in one way or another – that suffering plays a role in our personal and communal conversion and transformation. Of all of St. Paul’s writings, this letter is his most personal. It deals with crises that arose within the Corinthian Church. As St. Paul addresses these problems, he begins to reflect upon his relationship with the community in Corinth, and he expresses his thoughts openly and honestly. He both vents about his frustrations and expresses his affection for the community. It is clear that St. Paul understands suffering as an inevitable and often necessary part of our growth, but certainly not as an end in itself. All followers of Christ must direct their lives to becoming a new creation and living in union with God.
In this letter, St. Paul reflects on the redemptive dimensions of suffering for the sake of the Gospel. He refers to his own suffering, in which there is always some element of salvation. His experiences of suffering are not experiences that end with him, but have an effect for the good of the community. He writes, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10) Redemption is a radical transformation, taking the people out of a sinful mode of being, and introducing them to the new reality of the risen Christ. Christ initiated the work of redemption, and all who minister to the Gospel are involved in the work of reconciliation, bringing others to God.
Chapter 5 of this letter deals with our future destiny with God, the resurrection of the body, and the tension between the present and the future. St. Paul encourages the Christian community to be courageous and to remain focused on the future: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:9)
Along with this focus on individual judgment, there is a complementary emphasis on how a person’s deeds affect the actions of others. In the faith community, there are communal responsibilities. The baptized must be involved in the ministry of reconciling the world to God. St. Paul writes: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
Reconciliation takes place by God’s initiative. He freely extends his mercy to us, but to be reconciled, we must respond freely and accept his offer of mercy and love. Once reconciled, Christ calls us to be ambassadors of his mercy and ministers of reconciliation in this world.
How can we be signs of mercy in our suffering world today? Above all, we must learn to be compassionate. The root meaning of the word “compassion” is “to suffer together with” others. Our own suffering can have a transformative effect in our lives, making us more sensitive to the pain that others experience in life. Compassion motivates us to go beyond ourselves to help ease the suffering of others. As ambassadors of God’s mercy, we strive to bring about understanding where there is contention, to work for fairness and justice where there is discrimination, and to inspire hope where there is despair. Our own experience of suffering can put us in touch with the needs of those around us, and inspire us to be healers and reconcilers among our brothers and sisters in need.