The Suffering Evangelist

The vocation of the baptized is to become holy – that is, to accept the invitation into the Trinitarian communion, to be conformed to Christ and to introduce others to the God who loves us all so deeply. This is a weighty task, and one that can seem overwhelming to us, and for which we can feel unqualified and out of our depth. Yet God doesn’t look at our “expertise” but at our faithfulness and trust in Him. If we surrender ourselves to Him and pray to know our purpose, our particular giftedness, we’ll become His witnesses to the world. Most of us won’t draw hundreds or thousands to conversion, but what is most significant is that we draw the one person, at one particular time, whom God sets before us. Following the example of St. Teresa of Calcutta, we are asked not to convert the many, but only to bring God’s love and His Gospel to one person at a time.

Since the papacy of Pope St. Paul VI, the concept of a new evangelization has permeated the Church and re-invigorated the laity in carrying out Her mission. Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict each wrote and preached forcefully about the necessity not only of introducing Christ to those who do not know Him, but to re-introduce Him to those among the baptized who have grown cold or complacent in their faith. It is an invitation to those who have become slaves to rules rather than followers of the God whose precepts deepen our relationship with Him, and shape us into the men and women He created us to be. This is our responsibility as Christians: to bring Christ to the world, and to continue to invite Him anew into our own hearts.

Technological advances like television opened up new opportunities for evangelization starting with Bishop Fulton Sheen’s unique mixture of humor and theology, conveyed joyfully in a way that appealed to people of all, or no, faith. This model of spreading the Gospel over the airwaves continued to great effect with Mother Angelica and her EWTN worldwide Catholic network, and with CatholicTV in the Archdiocese of Boston. The internet has opened still more possibilities to bring the Gospel to the world with the click of a mouse or an app on the smartphone. Whether it is from the Sunday pulpit, the television or computer, the Word of God and the witness to His love remains a deeply personal reality. The Faith is not summed up in theological concepts or commandments, but in a relationship with the God who is Love; who in His essence is relational. It is through personal witness – our stories – that the Gospel is most effectively communicated to those who have either abandoned God, or who have forgotten who He is and how much He loves them. This is the primary way each of us can evangelize: by sharing ourselves and our personal encounters with the Lord. Though it’s not high tech or even innovative, a particularly effective but often overlooked means of sharing Christ is through our personal experience of suffering.

In his 2000 address to catechists, then-Cardinal Ratzinger placed the heart of evangelization in the Cross, saying that, “Jesus did not redeem the world with beautiful words but with his suffering and his death. His Passion is the inexhaustible source of life for the world; the Passion gives power to his words.” Suffering is not what we’d like to associate with evangelization. We’d generally prefer ways of witness that are more comfortable, more attractive and less difficult. But Jesus, through the paradox of the Cross, demonstrates that death brings new life, suffering is way for God to work in and transform us, and that what seems to be our heaviest burdens are often the means by which we can love most completely. Each of us, carrying our unique burdens, are called to be “suffering evangelists,” infusing our personal stories with the hope and fruitfulness promised us by God to win hearts over to Him.

I have learned first hand the power inherent in our suffering when it is yoked to Christ’s. Almost two years ago I co-founded an apostolate dedicated to offering emotional and spiritual support and accompaniment to those struggling with infertility and loss. When my friend and fellow John Paul II Institute graduate Kimberly Henkel and I founded Springs in the Desert, we did so mostly for our own sakes. In our shared experience with infertility we found that friendship was a necessary companion to prayer as we struggled to make sense of a desire for motherhood that would ultimately not be fulfilled biologically for either of us. Grateful for our formation at the Institute, we were still left puzzled by how the “beautiful words” found in the Church’s teaching applied to us, who felt isolated, suffering – barren. As we worked through our grief, personally and through our friendship, we began to understand that because Jesus first suffered for us, and continues to suffer with us, there is power in the pain we endure and the burdens we carry. Jesus is not only with us in our suffering, but He brings new life, a unique fruitfulness through it, if we will recognize that He can do so.

Since we took those first steps together “in the desert,” we have reached hundreds of women and men through our blog, social media, and our recent Springs of Hope Virtual Retreat. In the process we assembled a team of individuals and couples with whom we share the experience of infertility, and together we accompany others who, like us, are searching for the unique fruitfulness for which God has created us and our marriages. In this time of “social distancing,” technology has been a gift allowing us to connect with and “virtually accompany” so many who feel isolated, alone and even rejected by God. In social media posts and comments, direct messages and emails to us, we have been privileged to hear stories of pain and to cry with and pray for those who reach out to us. We hear their witness to being transformed by the message that Jesus carried their personal suffering to the Cross and is transforming it into something beautiful and life-giving. Many people have shared with us a renewed closeness to Christ as they begin to re-frame the experience of infertility not as a suffering (read punishment) imposed on them, but an invitation to a different but no less worthy means of giving life in the world.

In describing the “method” by which the New Evangelization must occur, Cardinal Ratzinger tells us it requires an “expropriation of one’s person, offering it to Christ for the salvation of men….” This, he says, “is the fundamental condition of the true commitment for the Gospel.” In other words, if we unite ourselves with Christ and join our wounds with His, they will be transformed by His authority into a way of ministering to others in their pain, bringing His love and mercy to those who feel lost and abandoned. My infertility, and the suffering I still experience to some degree, is transforming me. In every encounter with another person on this desert way who carries this burden God is showing me that suffering is one of the most powerful ways to evangelize because it is an experience that connects us to each other. Each of us, in our own unique pain, can be a suffering evangelist, bringing others to Christ so that they will know He has not and will not abandon them.


Ann Koshute is co-founder of Springs in the Desert and teaches a variety of courses for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

My Sins are Running Out Behind Me

In The Wisdom of the Desert, a text edited by Thomas Merton, the following saying from the 4th century Desert Fathers appears:

A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent the Abbot a message, saying, ‘Come, the community is waiting for you.’ So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet the Abbot and said: ‘What is this, Father?’ The Abbot replied: ‘My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing, this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him. (p. 40)

This story illustrates the theme of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sins.

In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul, a convert to the way of Jesus, describes himself as a
runner who strains forward to embrace what lies ahead. In his former life, Paul (called
Saul and a prominent Jewish rabbi) adamantly persecuted Christians. Having experienced
new life/new creation through Jesus’ forgiveness, Paul now counts all as loss, if only he can
share in Christ’s suffering and know the power of his resurrection. During his extensive Christian missionary endeavors, Paul suffered floggings, imprisonments, and, finally, was beheaded. In this way, he who had become possessed by Christ responded to God’s merciful forgiveness and love by laying down his life for the sake of the gospel.

In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, the author includes a narrative that concerns
an adulteress woman. In this story, the assembled Jewish leaders are about to fulfill the Mosaic Law that requires that this sinful woman be stoned to death. As the drama unfolds, Jesus declares that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. One by one, without uttering a word, the scribes and Pharisees depart, for who among the living is without sin? Left alone with the woman, Jesus proceeds to offer her new life/new creation through forgiveness of her sin. The woman, who moments ago believed her life was quickly drawing to an end, is now being given the opportunity for metanoia. Jesus’ words to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” require that she let go of lust of the flesh and embrace life according to the law of authentic love.

In 2006, the world witnessed another example of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sin. The pain and anguish of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., was extreme when five young girls in the community were murdered; in the face of this tragedy, the Amish chose to not balance hurt with hate. Hours after this horrific event took place in the one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, the Amish reached out in compassion to comfort the family of the gunman. Later, dozens of Amish attended the gunman’s funeral in support of his grieving widow and three children.

The Amish went about the somber task of burying their dead in the simple way that characterizes their lives. Each slain girl was attired in a white handmade dress and buried in a pine coffin. When asked what message they wanted to convey to the world, an Amish community spokesperson replied: “We have the richest treasure in the world and that is fraternal love.” Throughout the ordeal, the Amish bore profound witness to the incalculable
value of forgiveness and love.

The story just recounted calls each of us to follow the example of the Amish by offering others new life/new creation through forgiveness. Additionally, in the Desert Fathers’ vignette quoted at the beginning of this reflection, the Abbot’s pronouncement: “My sins are running out behind me” is a poignant reminder that we are all frail humans in need of forgiveness. As we go about our daily lives, let us remember this truth as we strive to be ambassadors of forgiveness to others in a world in need of God’s merciful compassion.

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Dept. at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.