Carolyn Woo

As Lent begins this month, I recall the Stations of the Cross, in particular, the station in which Simon helps Jesus carry his cross. It captures my attention. Simon, most likely on a long pilgrimage from Cyrene (in today’s Libya) to Jerusalem for Passover, was “compelled” into service by the Roman soldiers.

What did he feel? Not given a choice, did he bemoan his bad luck? Did he wonder how he could take on this burden given his own fatigue? Did he worry about being tainted in the service he was about to render to a “criminal”? Was he moved by compassion for a man beaten, tortured and made a spectacle for the public?

What about Jesus? What did he feel when the weight of the beam on his shoulder was shared? Did the company of another human being with him on this journey of unspeakable suffering offer any comfort?

I identify with this station because Simon and his service happen over and over again in my experience. In the past few weeks, I was made aware of Caritas Serbia’s programs and advocacy for the mentally ill; Caritas Lebanon’s commitment to shelter the ever-growing number of refugees displaced in the Syrian civil war; Caritas South Korea’s coordination of each diocese in its country to give aid to those who suffer starvation in North Korea; Caritas Japan’s efforts to assist victims of last year’s tsunami; Catholic Relief Service’s collaboration with Special Olympics to provide health services and education to intellectually challenged children who are often shunned and exploited in developing countries.

A good friend once asked whether I get depressed over the suffering that we see in our work. The answer is no. I feel deep concern and sadness over what people have to endure, sometimes anger over injustice and cruelty, but not hopelessness.

I encounter great love and compassion from people who see a need, a wrong, and offer their resources and themselves.

I realized that Christ shares with us his power of healing that extends from the miracles in the Gospel to the restoration of the good health of a child who weighs 10 pounds at 20 months old, to the mother who now has more options than selling a daughter into prostitution or to a farmer now that the fruits of his labor need not be surrendered for the payment of loans that carry 12 percent interest rate per month.

A precious gift is the bond with those who suffer, a recognition that they are just like us. We all want a good future for our children, need medical attention when in pain, feel a warm glow when people see our worth and let go a flood of tears when we realize we are not forgotten.

Legend has it that Simon of Cyrene became an active member of the early Christian community and that his sons Rufus and Alexander were among the first evangelizers. We do not know what really happened, but we know the tradition of Christian service known as charity (including the Cyrenian movement in the United Kingdom and Ireland) is one of three defining elements of the church, along with the word and the sacraments.

Like Simon, we do not always intentionally go seeking the needy, but we may be curious, we may be drawn, we may look with a different intensity and, due to forces beyond ourselves, we may be “compelled” to help carry a cross.

And when we pick up that cross, we must always remember that it is an encounter with Christ, an act of collaboration with no one less than God. It is another step in our journey to new life — others’ and ours.


Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services.