For someone who came onto the world stage over 26 years ago as a vibrant and active runner, swimmer and skier, Pope John Paul II’s suffering throughout his almost 85 years of life is especially memorable. Many of us, at difficult times in our lives, identified with him. His intense suffering included what he endured under the Nazis and Communists, the early death of his mother, father and brother, an attempted assassination and the suffering that was caused by it.
There were also, on six different occasions, his surgeries at Gemelli Hospital. He used to joke that Gemelli Hospital, where a suite was always reserved for him, was Vatican No. 3. Vatican No. 1 was Vatican City and No. 2 was the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Throughout his life, John Paul II taught us how to suffer.
Pope Benedict XVI, in the opening homily of his papacy, said about John Paul II: “In the suffering that we saw on the Holy Father’s face in those days of Easter, we contemplated the mystery of Christ’s passion and we touched his wounds. But throughout these days we have also been able, in a profound sense, to touch the risen one. We have been able to experience the joy that he promised, after a brief period of darkness, as the fruit of his resurrection.”
Not only did Pope Benedict speak of the suffering of his dear friend and predecessor and try to give meaning to it in light of Christ, John Paul himself wrote an apostolic letter early in his papacy about the Christian meaning of suffering. It was published on Feb. 11, 1984, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, after he had recovered from the assassination attempt.
That profound document, entitled Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Suffering), can help us greatly to deal with suffering in our lives. What John Paul wrote and how he dealt personally with intense suffering in life were linked.
By late 2004, John Paul’s advanced Parkinson’s disease had confined him to a wheelchair. That year, during his last pilgrimage to Lourdes, he drank from a spring thought to have curative powers and told other pilgrims, “With you, I share a time of life marked by physical suffering.”
The why of human suffering is a perennial question for each human being. It is a question on our minds as we see the senseless suffering in Iraq, the Middle East and Africa, all vividly depicted for us on the evening news. Suffering, especially innocent human suffering, is one of the hardest aspects of life to face.
Each of us in our honest and reflective moments is bound to ask why. This is true for our own suffering and that of others, perhaps a person we have nursed or helped. We experience with the person a share of his or her pain—“The anxiety that gnaws like fire, the loneliness that spreads out like a desert”—to quote the words of C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain.
We struggle as we watch a bedridden sick person struggle with his or her imposed loss of autonomy. As René Latourelle writes in Pain and Its Problems in the Light of Jesus Christ:
He is not himself. After having been accustomed to making his own decisions and take care of his own life, he must now yield control of himself to others. He had thought of himself as invulnerable, a person to whom nothing was impossible; now he has brutal evidence of the contrary. In time, he resigns himself to it and agrees to live this new state of life as “his.” Though ill, he is still himself, but much diminished and in decline.
John Paul II, recovering on his sickbed from an assassination attempt, reportedly struggled with these same questions. The resulting apostolic letter is a beautiful statement that helps us understand the gospel of suffering.
The late pope affirms: “Suffering seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man—essential to his fallen condition.” It cannot be avoided, even though we so often try. C. S. Lewis wrote in his book The Problem of Pain, “If I knew any way of escape, I would crawl through sewers to find it.”
But no such escape exists. For that reason, John Paul emphasized that suffering needs “to be dealt with, meditated upon and conceived as an explicit problem; and that therefore basic questions be asked about it and answers sought.” He wisely speaks of the “world of human suffering”—not just the pain or anxiety that each of us is called to endure from time to time but, parallel to this, the social dimension. “The world of human suffering possesses as it were,” in the words of Salvifici Doloris, “its own solidarity.” Classic examples of this could be seen on the day of the space shuttle disaster, on Sept. 11, 2001, and during the recent subway bombings in London. All of us were united in that “world of human suffering.”
The phenomenon of suffering, which seems essential to each of us individually and all of us together, cries out to be addressed. Suffering, particularly the type of suffering that becomes a way of life, compels us to ask, “Why?” and “Why me?” Often the why regarding human suffering translates into a more encompassing spiritual question regarding the why of life itself—a question put to God.
For some, this question not only raises frustrations in their relationship to God; it can also lead to denial of the existence of God—of God’s very presence among us. A dramatic example appears in the account of Elie Wiesel, who tells of his own struggle with God in the midst of suffering in a concentration camp on the eve of Rosh Hashana (quoted in George Weigel’s The Truth of Catholicism):
This day I have ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy, I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life has been tied for so long. I stood amid that praying congregation, observing it like a stranger.
An account like this gives us pause. We wonder why such disasters befall some people and leave others untouched. We may even be tempted to think that perhaps such calamities hit some because they are worse sinners than others—as a punishment for wrongdoing.
John Paul II, in his quest for the answer to the meaning of human suffering, focuses on the Old Testament’s countless examples, especially that of Job. “His suffering,” the late pope concludes, “is the suffering of someone who is innocent; it must be accepted as a mystery which the individual is unable to penetrate completely by his own intelligence.” It is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of a punishment. But if we do not look in the Old Testament, where do we look? How do we, as Christians, answer, or even approach an answer, to a phenomenon that is essential to each of us?
For John Paul, “In order to perceive the true answers to the why of human suffering, we must look to the revelation of Divine Love, Jesus Christ, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists.” Jesus Christ is the innocent lamb led to slaughter for us. The answer has been given, above all, by God to each of us in the cross of Jesus Christ, the ancient symbol of torture and suffering that in Christ has become his seat of glory, and our own.
The very mission of the only-begotten Son consisted in conquering sin and death forever by his cross and resurrection. Even though his victory over sin and death does not abolish suffering from human life nor free from suffering its human dimension, it nevertheless throws a new light upon every human suffering. That is the light of salvation—the good news of the Gospel.
Jesus draws close, in a salvific way, to the whole world of suffering in which we share. He does so through his words, works, miracles, lifestyle and priorities. They are found in the Gospel. Pope John Paul II points out in his apostolic letter:
[Jesus] went about doing good, and His actions concerned primarily those who were suffering and seeking help. He healed the sick, consoled the afflicted, fed the hungry, freed people from deafness, from blindness, from leprosy, from the devil and from various physical disabilities; three times he restored the dead to life. He was sensitive to every human suffering, whether of the body or of the soul.
Like a magnet, Jesus was drawn to suffering. This was no accident. It is precisely in and through suffering that Jesus and his power are revealed. This “salvific” power gives Christian meaning to the problem of suffering. It is a mystery. It is where we meet God. It is not the kind of mystery solved by Sherlock Holmes; rather it is a mystery in the sense that it can be understood only as an act of love.
Above all, this power of God—we call it by many names: love, eternal life, strength, compassion, mercy—culminates in the passion and death of Christ for us. It is the greatest love act the world has ever known. It involves suffering and, ultimately, death. It was his great yes to his Father. The words of Jesus, John Paul writes:
prove the truth of that love which the only begotten Son gives to the Father in his obedience. At the same time they attest to the truth of his suffering. The words of that prayer of Christ in Gethsemane prove the truth of love through the truth of suffering.
The proof offered by the link of the “truth of love through the truth of suffering” was not demonstrated by a simple explanation. Instead Jesus accepted, shared and transformed human suffering. He made it an opportunity for salvation and sanctification. Jesus makes his own suffering “the greatest possible answer to this question” concerning the meaning of suffering.
Pope John Paul II affirmed that as a result of the cross, all human suffering is in a “new situation.” By accomplishing our redemption precisely in and through suffering, Christ has raised human suffering to the level of redemption. Each of us can also share in the redemptive suffering of Christ, see Jesus in our suffering and in the suffering of others, and meet him personally in suffering, all the while experiencing his power.
George Weigel writes in The Truth of Catholicism:
Through our suffering, Christ constantly opens himself to every human suffering; through our suffering, “what is lacking” in the world’s experience of its redemption is being completed. That is how “human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, completes the suffering of Christ.” Our suffering completes the redemptive work of Christ, by extending it in time and history.
Why is this? How is it possible that in our very weakness, our moments of vulnerability, we can experience the greatness of our Lord? Hidden within suffering is the mysterious glory of his resurrection. The cross, his suffering, was not an end in itself. No, but through his resurrection, the cross, the life that each of us shares by our Christian baptism—the “victorious power of suffering” is revealed. “Christ has led us into this kingdom through his suffering.... To the prospect of the kingdom of God is linked hope in that glory which has its beginning in the cross of Christ.” St. Paul states it clearly:
We are...fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us (Rm 8:17-18).
Suffering makes sense and has power only when we see in it the mystery of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a mystery upon which we meditate. Apart from Jesus, and without our sharing in that mystery, it remains only a problem without a solution. To understand this fundamental mystery of our faith, above all, to experience in suffering the power of the Lord precisely in our weakness, in our struggles, in the struggles and suffering of others, takes time. It is a gradual process. It often begins and is set in motion with great difficulty.
The Lord does not conceal the prospect of suffering from his disciples, nor does he conceal it from us. In Luke, Jesus tells us, “If any man would come after me...let him take up his cross daily” (Lk 9:23). Most of us face these moments of suffering in our lives or others’ with a typically human protest and the question, “Why?” It often takes a long time to discover the transforming power hidden in human suffering. John Paul II reminds us:
Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering, but above all that he becomes a completely new person. He discovers a new dimension, as it were, of his entire life and vocation.
In this discovery of the meaning of suffering, which is accompanied by deep spiritual joy, we understand better St. Paul’s declaration, “Now I rejoice in my suffering for your sake.” This discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms us into sharers of Christ’s eternal life, which is love. It helps us better to understand the question about the why and meaning of suffering. As John Paul said on a trip to Calcutta in 1986:
I cannot fully answer all your questions. I cannot take away all your pain. But of this I am sure: God loves you with an everlasting love. You are precious in his sight. In Him, I love you too. For in God, we are truly brothers and sisters.
John Paul II understood and shared the “treasure” of his own suffering. For that gift, our world, and each of us, has been deeply enriched.