Although I was baptised as an infant, attended a Catholic school, and grew up in a family that attended Mass most of the time, my faith didn’t mean much to me until I had some people pray with me at a retreat in my teenage years.
In the early days of my walk with Jesus as I found myself interested in learning more about my faith, I remember being extremely confronted by Jesus’ death on the cross. If God was omnipotent, surely there was an alternative path to salvation than this gruesome and torturous instrument of death.
In particular, the first few Lenten journeys that I took had special significance as I took the journey much more intentionally than I had in the past. A part of this intentionality for me was an interest in the Stations of the Cross and a strong desire to prepare my heart for Easter by journeying with Jesus through this special devotion. The questions that had stirred up in my heart regarding Jesus’ death continued and for the most part, remained unresolved for me.
Over the 20 years that followed, my life took often unexpected paths. Career-wise I eventually became the executive director of NET Ministries (a Catholic not-for-profit youth ministry) in Australia. This role exposed me to the best and worst of our world today as I accompanied hundreds of youth adults as they evangelised their peers. I heard about struggles in families, divorce, domestic violence, and the fracturing, and alienation, of relationships. I heard about addiction (usually alcohol, drugs, and porn), and about so many young people who were struggling with mental health issues. In short, through these young people, their vulnerability, and through the disclosures of other young people to these missionaries, I was exposed to a lot of suffering that takes place in our world and the hard unanswered questions about suffering remained with me.
HOW DO WE MAKE MEANING
Some of this suffering made me want to explore how humans make meaning, and I started a PhD centred around the question of what we can do each day to make our lives more meaningful. Becoming a husband and a father also taught me many good but painful lessons about the human condition. There were a lot of ups and downs and a lot of things that happened in this time, both good and bad.
In September 2023, I went on a pilgrimage in Spain, the Camino de Santiago, walking about 120km from Sarria to Santiago over seven days. Being away from the daily grind with nothing to do each day but walk for hours, freed my mind to be present in the moment, and attentive to my surroundings in a way that it hadn’t been for years.
The experience culminated as we came into the Cathedral of Santiago and attended the pilgrim’s Mass. I was amazed when I realised that the Gospel reading of the Mass (Luke 9:57-62) was a scripture passage that had found me 20 years earlier at a time when it was exactly what I needed to hear. That scripture had always stuck with me and as I stood there enclosed in the architectural genius of that Cathedral with thousands of other pilgrims, it was like I was the only person in the room. I was taken back to that moment, 20 years before, when the scripture had come to me, and it was like every moment between this moment and that flashed before my eyes.
I saw the good moments full of joy, and the dark moments full of suffering and many mundane moments in between. It was an accounting, a recalling, and a communication from Jesus that he had been with me, right beside me, for every moment of the past 20 years. The seed of an understanding was planted in my heart in that moment that has blossomed since.
JESUS IS WITH US
I still don’t understand why there is so much suffering in the world, but I have become convinced that by choosing to go to the Cross, Jesus was doing the best he could to convince me (and humanity) that he is with me as I suffer, that he walks beside me in good times and in bad and that he has known incredible suffering far beyond what I have experienced, and that he comforts me, eases my pain and strengthens me through his witness.
My prayer for us during this season of Lent is that the Stations of the Cross and the journey of Jesus’ Passion may strengthen us and fill us with the hope of the Resurrection knowing that Jesus has ‘become a merciful and faithful high priest’ who has known every temptation and suffering that we do, but who has defeated death itself in order to offer us peace and joy in eternity with his father.
Mark Doyle is associate director, Mission and Ministry at Australian Catholic University. He is also a PhD Candidate with ACU’s Institute for Positive Psychology and Education, looking at how people can discover deeper meaning in their lives.