“I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’” he began.
“’How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault . . .It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.
The quote above from actor and public atheist Stephen Fry appeared in my post earlier in the week on the Feast of the Presentation (“The Presentation: Sufering and Joy“). Fry had been asked what he would say if, by chance, he should find himself face-to-face with the God he had rejected. I responded that, to an atheist who believes that there is nothing else beyond this world, physical suffering is the worst thing that can happen, but faith in Christ offers us so much more. Faith can bring us joy, “sometimes in the face of intense suffering, sometimes even through [our] suffering” if we join our pain to the suffering the Christ. I had offered the example of a relative, one of my father’s sisters, whose radiant faith “allowed her to be a support to everyone else as she lay dying of cancer.”
One might observe that I didn’t address Fry’s point about the suffering of children in particular. My aunt, after all, had lived a full life, and died at a time of life where we expect that our end is near. My immediate answer to that objection would be to offer the example of child saints who joyfully accepted death and suffering for the sake of Christ. The twelve year old martyr St. Tarcisius, for instance, who gave his life to prevent the desecration of the Eucharist by a Roman mob, or his twentieth century Chinese counterpart Little Li, killed by communists for her Eucharistic devotion. The fourteen year old St. Dominic Savio, whose death was probably brought on by pleurisy, also comes to mind.
Fry mentions bone cancer specifically, of course, as an example of suffering that is especially intense and lingering. It’s a curious thing, but just this morning when I was researching a different topic, I came across an account of Chiara Badano, who was beatified by Pope Benedict twelve years ago and whose cause for canonization is ongoing. Eighteen year old Chiara died in 1990, having suffered for two years . . . from bone cancer.
Our atheist friends might call that random chance, but it happens that Chiara provides a real life answer to Stphen Fry’s hypothetical question. The key is the role of faith in her life. Chiara deepened her faith through involvement with the Focolare movement, which her family joined when she was nine years old. When she became ill a few years later, that faith transformed her suffering, and her suffering informed her faith. She echoed St.Paul’s assertion that “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24), saying: “there’s only one thing I can do now: to offer my suffering to Jesus because I want to share as much as possible in his sufferings on the cross.” As was the case for St. Paul, and for the aunt I mentioned above, her suffering wasn’t pointless at all, but was offered for the benefit of others. Focolare’s account of her life recounts what happened when friends went to visit her in the hospital:
“At first we thought we’d visit her to keep her spirits up,” one of the Gen boys said,
“but very soon we understood that, in fact, we were the ones who needed her. Her life was like a magnet drawing us to her.”
This is the transformative power of faithful suffering. If we let him, Christ can transform our suffering into a powerful force for the good of our fellow men and women.
Not only that, there are rewards for the sufferer as well. Our faith teaches us that when we join our sufferings to Christ’s, we never suffer alone. Before she died, Chiara described what happened during one especially painful medical procedure:
When the doctors began to carry out this small, but quite demanding, procedure, a lady with a very beautiful and luminous smile came in. She came up to me and took me by the hand, and her touch filled me with courage.
In the same way that she arrived, she disappeared, and I could no longer see her. But my heart was filled with an immense joy and all fear left me. In that moment I understood that if we’re always ready for everything, God sends us many signs of his love.
The Stephen Frys of the world will dismiss Blessed Chiara’s account as fantasy, but no evidence will convince those who choose not to be convinced. The evidence is on Chiara’s side. The evidence is not only in her words, but in the testimony of her friends and relatives whose lives she enriched. The evidence is in her abundant joy in the face of excruciating physical suffering.
In truth, even the most ardent materialist will admit that suffering, at least in some cases, may be worthwhile: the pain we experience to condition our bodies for an athletic endeavor, for instance. Most will even concede that taking on hardship for others can outweigh the suffering involved, as in the case of a parent who sacrifices for his or her children, or even a soldier who trades his own life for the protection of his fellow citizens. How much more worthwhile when the reward is eternal joy, not only for ourselves, but for those whose lives and spirits are uplifted by our sacrifice?
Bone Cancer is a terrible thing, and it’s hard for us to see the suffering it causes, especially in children. But the power of Christ is much more powerful than even the worst suffering this world has to offer. Just ask Blessed Chiara Badano.
O Father, fount of everything good, we give you thanks for the wonderful testimony of Blessed Chiara Badano. Filled with the Holy Spirit and guided by the radiant light of Jesus, she believed firmly in your infinite love, and wished to return it with all her strength, surrendering herself in complete trust to your paternal will. We humbly beseech you that you may also grant us the gift to live with you and for you, and ask you, if it be your will, for the grace… through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
(from Blessed Chiara’s prayer card)