What are comforting words you would give to a couple burying their only child? How would you explain why—after trying to have children for many years and spending a lot of money going to different specialists—they were able to conceive a son, only to bury him when he was only twelve years old?
These are questions I asked myself as I read the first half of a story told by Fr. Brett Brannen, a priest, in his book To Save a Thousand Souls. The priest in the story was a pastor who was called to bury a child and minister to his suffering parents.
I asked these questions because I have often struggled with the problem of suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent. I hoped to learn some insights on how to comfort people or explain to them the reason for their suffering from the story.
But I was disappointed. Halfway through the story, the priest hadn’t given any reason to the suffering couple why their son had to be taken away from them. Perhaps he did not have an answer. Maybe he could not sincerely come up with a reasonable explanation for their suffering.
To be fair to him—how could he explain suffering, after learning about all the troubles the couple had gone through to have this child, only to be taken away from them? Would it have been better if the couple hadn’t conceived a child in the first place? Is it better not to have any hope rather than to have a small amount of hope taken away?
I was not the only one disappointed. The priest, though apparently doing everything he could for the family, felt inadequate in his effort to console the family. This painful frustration showed as the situation only got worse.
The mother looked at the priest and said, “Father, please open the casket so I can say goodbye.”
The priest thought to himself, “Oh no. Please don’t do this.”
But what could he do? How could he deny the request of a mother burying her only child? As the casket was opened for her, the mother began to scream and cry, hugging her child. Emotionally, the priest could not take it anymore, and tears poured down his cheeks.
What happened next totally caught the priest and me by surprise!
As the burial came to an end, the priest turned away and started walking slowly among the graves. As he was trying to gather himself, he suddenly heard Jesus speak to him very clearly. The Lord had spoken to him many times in his life, but rarely had he spoken so clearly.
Jesus said, “Thank you.” And the priest understood at that moment what Jesus was saying: “Thank you for being a priest. Thank you for burying this child for me, and thank you for ministering to his parents.” He undoubtedly knew that it was Jesus because the voice totally and immediately moved him from sadness to joy.
I realize that, all along, the reason for my disappointment and probably the priest’s too is that we wanted to give words of comfort that could satisfactorily restore the afflicted. And so, we thought burying the child and tending to the parents was inadequate. We felt that the priest had not succeeded if he hadn’t satisfactorily consoled the parents.
But it is not so with God! What the priest could do for the family was all that our Lord Jesus asked of him. The ultimate healing comes from God. Are we willing to let Him use us as his instruments to begin that healing process for his suffering people?
Br. Martin Maria Nguyen, O.P. | Meet the Student Brothers in Formation HERE