by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
Once when Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" They said in reply, "John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, 'One of the ancient prophets has arisen.'" Then he said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter said in reply, "The Christ of God," He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone.
He said, "The son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised."
Then he said to all, "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."
With the oils of ordination barely dry, the young priest began his ministry in earnest. Despite his seminary training, he was not prepared for many of the pastoral encounters to come. The elderly woman, a retired religious sister, was writing in pain in her hospital bedroom shortly before she died. Her repeated lament was, “never thought it would come to this.” The priest, like one of the friends of Job, had all the answers (at least in his mind) from his seminary training, and was able to quote the Gospel from memory: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Lk 9:23). And, “The servant is not greater than his master” (Jn 15:20).
All true and profound and divinely revealed, but when it comes to human suffering, timing is everything. A priest soon learns what most doctors and nurses know. There is a gulf between a man’s pity in the face of suffering and his ability to do or say something – anything – to alleviate the suffering. It is usually too late for homilies, but timely for a loving presence. All human suffering beckons something greater than words: compassion.
We do not often hear the word “pity” in popular culture. But the word provides this important distinction: Pity is not compassion (although the two concepts are often conflated, even biblical translators sometimes failing to distinguish between the two). Pity is feeling sorry for someone in distress. The purpose of pity is to inspire acts of compassion. In the Gospels we repeatedly hear of Christ being “moved with pity” before a miraculous healing. We witness His pity as He wept at the tomb of Lazarus. We see how pity moved Him to compassion – to do what only He could do – and Lazarus was raised from the dead.
The emotion of pity, then, falls short of compassion. Rather, compassion completes or somehow fulfills the emotion of pity. Compassion is a choice to “suffer with” those who suffer. Filled with pity for the victims of tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes, some people are paralyzed or discouraged by their pity and turn the channel. Others respond to their sense of pity with praiseworthy acts of compassion: volunteering in their neighborhoods or helping with monetary contributions or praying for the repose of the souls of the victims.
A healthy sense of pity for those who suffer ought to impel a priest toward fulfilling his pastoral duty. In faith, the priest knows his prayers and the administration of the sacraments have infinite value and are the ordinary ways a priest administers the compassion of Christ’s love. The church’s prayers and rituals infallibly communicate the presence of Christ to those who suffer. The presence of Christ – and somehow communicating that presence – is the perfect form of compassion.
It's important to understand that morally superior acts of compassion need not necessarily be inspired by pity, and there is certainly no sin in the absence of that emotion. A mother changing a crying baby’s diaper in the middle of the night may not feel an ounce of pity due to the feeling of annoyance. But the dutiful and motherly suppression of annoyance and gentle response is a true act of compassion. She “suffers with” her child while suppressing her agitations. She is virtuous and sins not.
Similarly taking care of elderly parents is often a sacrificial challenge to grown children. The confusion and stubbornness of the elderly is not only the stuff of popular humor, but grist for authentic growth in virtue. The choice to care for others despite the suppressed feelings of irritation (provided the feelings do not lead to unjust or uncharitable actions) is indeed a splendid and spiritually meritorious form of compassion or “suffering with” those who suffer. It is that very “denying” of oneself o those who “wish to come after” Christ.
Christ promises the cross, but most of us are not prepared when we receive it, nor are we prepared when we witness it. The emotion of pity is a gift that moves us toward acts of Christian compassion that cross the abyss that separates us from those who suffer. We may not get out of this life alive, but Christian compassion based on our imitation of Christ brings us to everlasting life.
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