What Our Lady’s Suffering Can Teach Church Leaders

My wife grew up in a small town, and as Chesterton said, small-town people are the real cosmopolitans. They can’t insulate themselves in a comfy circle of the like-minded; they must deal with everybody. There were good people in her town, but the nasty ones were always walking down her street. Cosmopolitan in a fallen cosmos, she confronted mundane harassment, resentment, and animosity (and dished her own, she insists). Her best friend’s mom harassed her for her Catholicism, and she later learned her best friend’s dad was the local abortionist. We’re commanded to love our enemy and love our neighbor, Chesterton said, because it’s usually the same person.

Our Lady also grew up in a small town. Helpful and modest, she must have been popular with almost all her neighbors. Almost all. But there must have been a few detractors. Maybe some old biddy at the well jostled her, eager to vent on just that sort of pretty young snippet. In the synagogue, perhaps, a wounded wife stared bitterly, resenting her undeserved peace. Almost certainly there was someone who hated her habitually: someone who knew what she’s really like, what she’s really up to, and who eagerly told anyone who would listen. Animosity is like an endless cold: it’s not fatal, but it’s tiring, impossible to ignore, and there’s nothing you can do about it but pray. My wife insists Our Lady must have been more aware of all this, not less, because she was immaculate.

The Church’s unofficial recognition of Our Lady as Co-Redemptrix of our fallen race is based on the unimaginable agony she experienced at the foot of the Cross, in witnessing the death of her mangled son. Who would wish this on his own mother? Would he not have saved her from that, if it had no purpose? One can’t imagine the Perfect Man inflicting such voluntary suffering on his own mother, unless it contributed to her glorification and our redemption.

Yet our problem is understanding it. Any normal mom would have been reduced to gibbering hysteria by what she saw—incapable even of registering her son’s bequest of her to “the disciple he loved.” Yet she paid attention to it all. Her suffering at the Cross is so transcendent that it is hard for us to understand its nature. On the other hand, understanding her merely human pain in Nazareth might be easier.

 

What might we reasonably suppose Our Lady’s passion was when jostled at the well, scowled at in the synagogue, or slandered in the streets? What would have been likely? We can’t suppose that she failed to notice. This would confuse sanctity with absent-mindedness.

Our Lady’s sanctity was defined by “the lowliness of his handmaiden,” her perfectly transparent humility. She was therefore not pained by the fact that these women didn’t like her (as we are). Neither was she angered by the injustice of their rejection (as we are). More than any other human, her daily agony was not about her. It was about them: the nasty old biddy, the wounded wife, and the hate-filled gossip.

What did she experience? Their ugliness; their falling short of the life intended by their Creator; and their sealing themselves in little microcosms of anger, pain, or vanity. With no reference to herself, she apprehended their rejection of the wholeness, harmony and radiance of living in “his promise to our forefathers.” Her experience may have been more immediate and less self-referential than even pity or righteous indignation. Yet their shortfall was manifest only within her constant awareness of “his promise of mercy.” They, too, were daughters of Israel and shared in that promise. Within the stasis of her humility, her passive pain of revulsion was conjoined with the active joy of adoration, in sum, a life “fully alive.”

Our Lady’s daily suffering with those few villagers may illuminate her suffering at the Cross. Again, it was “not about her.” Her pain would have been seeing the ugliness of her Son’s tormentors. Whatever else she may have been experiencing, in their mutilation and destruction of his body she would have seen the degradation of their souls. Yet her pain would have been conjoined with the joyful recognition that this, too, was “his help to his servant Israel … his promise of mercy.”

This is indeed suffering transcending the merely human. But it suggests a principle: there is no humility and therefore no joy in redemption without the pain of our current ugliness. And the more sanctified, the more sensitive to the ugliness.

Catholics today have been drenched in ugliness, like an upstairs toilet flooding through our ceiling. How did we get here? By concealing a half-century of dripping ugliness. We confused the reality of scandal with its publication. The scandal is the act, not its exposure. Its harm to the Church is therefore multiplied, not diminished, by concealment. We insist on the Church’s supernatural purity, but we can’t “protect” her—and never could—by minimizing her earthly violations. Transparent humility allows us to cling to our hope of redemption only by constantly acknowledging our degradation.

Some still say that unproven allegations against clerics must remain private, lest innocent priests suffer unjust suspicion leading to the defilement of the Church. Yet civil and criminal courts don’t work that way. Victims demand a hearing. Accusations are public record, and the judiciary must either prove or dismiss them. Transparency demands it.

Love for the Church has mutated into the vanity that we’re responsible for defending her inviolability with our secrecy, when the only ones we had the power to protect were the victims. This has led some to claim that we could and should shield priests from any suspicion, unless and until their guilt is proven, which guaranteed that the guilty and their victims would never be exposed. And if any charges turned out to have been unjustified, this discretion would merely have denied the innocent priests and their witnesses a momentary cross—a cross we all risk bearing in the civil and criminal courts.

The scandal was in the ugly act, not in its exposure. The Church is protected from supernatural destruction. Her proud shepherds ignored this spiritual reality when they chose to root out the ugliness in the least effective manner possible. Protecting the Church by protecting innocent clerics from public accusation has only served to back up a half-century’s flood of ugliness, invariably soiling everyone. Humility is transparent. It does not hide from ugliness.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Pietà” painted by William Adolphe Bouguereau in 1876.

Joseph Woodard

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Joseph Woodard is a retired citizenship judge who served in Calgary, Canada. He taught government at Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario, and served as religion editor for the Calgary Herald. He holds two Master's degrees, one from Dalhousie University (1980) and from St. John's College (1980), and a doctorate from Claremont Graduate School (1988).

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