Lord, as this bread was formed
From many different stalks of wheat
Which were picked, crushed, ground and baked
That it might be one loaf,
As this wine was fashioned from many grapes
Picked in different parts of the field,
Crushed, fermented in darkness and aged
That it might be one sweet drink,
So we pray that we who are many and different
By the joy we share and the sorrow we endure
Might be formed into a people of praise
For the glory of Your name.
Our Lenten and Easter observances are meant to remind us of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus’ life. And they are meant to stir our faith in the great hope that the same will be true for us. St. Paul wrote in Galatians 2, “I have been crucified with Christ, yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.”
These words sound so beautiful, don’t they? Yet the process of this truth is no less than the dying and rising of Christ within us. God is at work fashioning and forming us, like the bread and wine at Mass, into a more perfect representation of the Body of Christ. It is one thing to affirm this in the abstract. It is quite another to live this through the suffering of our lives.
Nowhere have I seen this Paschal Mystery more perfectly realized than in the death of my dear brother priest, Fr. Jim Willig. Fr. Jim and I were best friends, and for years we led pilgrimages around the world to holy sites. Ten years ago this summer, we returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to discover that Jim had developed renal cell cancer, a particularly deadly strain because it usually shows no symptoms until it is too late. In the operation, they discovered a football size tumor that had metastasized and traveled to his lungs.
Jim wanted to live. He didn’t want “early retirement” as he put it. But as Fr. Jim’s body grew weaker and weaker, his faith grew stronger and stronger. His voice became more and more frail, but his parish became larger and larger. Daily Fr. Jim would pray St. Ignatius’ famous prayer: “Take, Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, my will, my entire self. All I have you have given to me. Now I return it to be used only according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace. With these I am rich enough and desire nothing more.”
For the first year of the cancer journey, Fr. Jim could only pray these words and half mean them. He wanted a physical healing, and he continued to beg God for this grace. But a year and a half into his sickness, Fr. Jim’s heart surrendered more completely to the transformation that God was working in him. He started to pray: "I don’t know what my future holds, but I know who holds my future."
With this change in attitude came a profound change in Fr. Jim’s spirit. He went from being a good priest to an extraordinarily holy priest. He went from being a very good preacher to an extraordinarily powerful man of God. We began to see so clearly Christ at work in Fr. Jim’s life.
When he died, just about two years after his diagnosis, there was no one who knew him who doubted that Fr. Jim was taking his place among God’s saints. Fr. Jim had chronicled this remarked transformation in a book entitled Lessons from the School of Suffering.
All of us want to grow into the image and likeness of Christ. That is the goal of our faith. We are called to this transformation not just as individuals but also as Church, as the people of God. And the surest way to allow this transformation to occur is to walk the path of suffering in faith as Jesus did. This Paschal Mystery is not just about what occurred to Jesus two thousand years ago. It is the pattern of every Christian who embraces Jesus call to “Pick up your cross and follow.” (Mt 16:24)
During this Holy Week and into the Easter season, with every Mass we attend and every communion we receive, let us pray for a deeper surrender to God’s will in our lives that “in the joy we share and the sorrow we endure, we might be formed into a people of praise for the glory of your name.”
-Fr J. Michael Sparough, SJ
Lessons from the School of Suffering is available through Heart to Heart.