Suffering as Mercy
How Father Stu taught me the power of suffering
I went to go see Father Stu on opening night, the day before the Paschal Triduum was to start. I felt it was part of my Lenten mission to gather friends together and celebrate Catholic film. It didn’t matter to me whether I was going to like it or not, although I cried just watching the trailer. What was important was immersing myself in an experience with friends who were also on their Lenten journey.
I proposed that we see it to one friend, which then became two and later it grew to seven of us. Of course, we had to grab the obligatory movie snacks and talk pre-movie chatter before we took our seats. But as we were walking and talking before making it into that theatre, I realized that this was going to be more than just a movie, it was going to be an experience. I just didn’t know that it was going to be the experience that led me here, to Good Friday.
The film is about a priest who takes an unconventional way to the seminary. Growing up in Montana and enduring a rather rough childhood and later moving to LA to pursue an acting career, Stu falls in love with a woman he meets while working at a grocery store. The woman is a devout Catholic, and so he pursues her all the way into the Catholic Church. As you guessed from the name of the film, Stu doesn’t get married to this woman but instead decides to become a Priest.
Isn’t it amazing the things that God will use to get us to where we need to go?
I don’t want to give away much of the story, because I want you to experience it for yourself, but suffice it to say the film is about redemptive suffering and purpose. Ultimately, it was a debilitating illness that elevated Father Stu to the priesthood.
Stu’s story moved me for two reasons. First, he was not a saint, just an average Catholic like you and me. That’s what was extraordinary to me, that of all the stories that Mark Wahlberg could have chosen to tell, he chose Stu’s. In a way it felt like he chose to tell my story, and yours.
And better yet, not only was Stu not a saint and a relatively unknown figure in the church, but He was a mess. A whole lot of mess. I loved Him because He was so imperfect and human, I could relate.
Sometimes, you have to really get off the grid to connect, and Father Stu was certainly off the Catholic grid.
When I walked out of the movie with my friends, I felt my heart was perfectly prepared to sit with Jesus and pray in the Garden at Gethsemane and stand with Mary at the foot of the cross. I was prepared now to enter into those Paschal mysteries, leading up to this very day, the crucifixion when my eyes are firmly fixed on the cross. I was ready now, really ready. The film helped me to remember that there is only one way through, and that is through suffering.
With my own sufferings that I bring to Jesus this Good Friday, I am bringing Father Stu with me. Not because he taught me something new, but because he reminded me of why I became a Catholic. In my search for answers to my own suffering as a sexual abuse survivor, God sent me, a Jewish girl to the Catholic church to find answers. Father Stu reminded me that it is because of my sufferings, not in spite of them, that God chose me to stand with Him at the foot of the cross.
God chose me to share His pain with
I have struggled with my own way to Calvary to become a writer, the call and aching of my heart. I took a left turn somewhere before I was a Christian and became an attorney. God prompted me to start writing again when I became a Christian, and just when I thought God was going to redeem my writing career, He made me a Catholic instead. On the verge of my breakthrough, every Protestant publication I was writing for dropped me because I was a Catholic. My dreams of writing were completely destroyed.
I tried writing in Catholic media but had a rough go of it. My story, like Stu’s, was tough and ugly and did not fit neatly into a box. I did not have a gentle Marian flair, and nobody wanted me to write about suffering. I thought God had given up on me, and for a long time, my voice was silent.
In my most recent sufferings, when I had to walk away from the job that I loved the most, I begged God to do something with me, anything to show me purpose in this suffering. And this longing was more than just for this suffering, this longing and needing to know the purpose of suffering was a cry that was a lifetime in the making.
As I watched Father Stu prostrate himself before the altar at His ordination, I let out a cry that was so deeply embedded in a place in my heart that I didn’t even know existed. Because Father Stu was physically dying, but at the same time, was living his dream and his purpose for which God created him. That scene was the moment I understood Hebrews 5:8, He learned obedience from what he suffered (NABRE).
Walking into Holy Thursday, I carried this image with me. Father Stu’s dying body that allowed Him to enter into the priesthood. Christ on a cross. I too now wanted to lie prostrate before our Lord and thank Him for the suffering He had given me; for the people that betrayed me, the ones that spit on me, the ones who rejecetd me. My wound may not have been a physical one, but what I came to realize was that Christ gives us all a share of His sufferings in different ways. And mine to marry to the wounds of Christ were the unseen wounds, the emotional ones.
As I looked on at my priest washing the feet of twelve men on the altar, I turned to my daughter and whispered, “one of those twelve was Judas.” Jesus washed Judas’s feet knowing he would betray Him, knowing he would send him to his death. He loved him anyway.
The thing is, He loved Judas just like He loved me, and you. And there is just so much suffering in that, so much pain. But there is also so much healing and deeply embedded meaning.
“How could I take away from you the very thing that you write about Melissa?” I heard the Lord say. “Then who would believe you?
Suffering made me a writer. That’s what I write about. This is my ministry. The Lord was right. How could I ask the Lord to take away my suffering when it is the very thing He’s asked me to write about? I could hear Father Stu as if he were next to me say under his breath, “you finally got it.”
Today when you enter Good Friday, don’t leave your sufferings outside the church doors, take them with you. Marry them to the hidden wounds of Jesus, the burden of grief, the ache of betrayal, the piercing sting of rejection. And take Father Stu with you in your heart, asking for his intercession, that you may also see your sufferings as a gift and not a burden. Then at the foot of the cross, you will come to know why you are there in the first place.