By: Caitlin Bootsma
An acquaintance recently questioned why it is that Catholics, more than other Christians, seem fixated on the concept of suffering. After all, he said, we have feast days that celebrate Our Lady of Sorrows and we hang a crucifix in every church. It seemed to him that all Catholics must have a melancholic temperament. When many people think of suffering they connect it with evil. It is either an evil inflicted upon us or a suffering of some lack.
Yet there is a reason that the Church values suffering and distinguishes it from evil. Pope John Paul II highlights the redemptive character of suffering, which comprises the very core of our faith and of the human condition. In his letter Salvifici Doloris he writes, “It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it.”
Suffering is, as the Pope implies, particular to man – it has a breadth and depth beyond mere physical pain. It exists because of an evil perpetrated either by ourselves or others or certainly as a result of original sin. As a result of the Fall, sickness and death entered into the world. It is perhaps easiest to think of suffering as a just punishment for the wrong that we have done.
However, many people suffer for reasons unrelated to their own actions. In a recent online discussion of the existence of God, I read one person’s comment that she had believed in God until she read the book of Job, but then could not make sense of that good man’s sufferings and therefore no longer believed in God. Indeed, suffering seems part of every person’s life, sometimes regardless of their individual virtue – why would God allow this suffering?
In his letter, Pope John Paul II writes that because we are united to Christ through baptism, suffering takes on a rich meaning. There is no stronger witness to innocent suffering than Christ. He suffered death through no fault of his own and subsequently brought new life to the world through the Resurrection. John Paul II writes that Christ’s suffering “has been linked to love, to that love of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross constantly takes its meaning.” Evil exists because of sin, but the Lord gives us the grace to suffer well – even charitably – and therefore become more like Him.
Through suffering we grow in holiness and recognize that Heaven is more important than earth. The Pope explains that Christ invites us to share in His suffering each time that suffering is part of our own lives. Through dying and rising again, Christ “raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption.” Therefore, if we are able to unite our suffering with that of Christ, then that suffering will naturally draw us closer to Him and to our heavenly home rather than to the temporal comforts or goods we may be lacking because of our suffering.
While never undermining the true trials of suffering, John Paul II emphasizes that when a man places his hope in God throughout his suffering, then he is truly embracing the depth of his humanity. This depth brings about a spiritual maturity in individuals who suffer well. We see this depth in the saints, in those who clearly grow in holiness through terminal illness and, yes, even in ourselves as we learn to place our trust in God, not in the comforts of the world.
Suffering is the result of a fallen world, but God works through suffering to draw us closer to Him. In his letter, John Paul II provides an answer to the acquaintance who questioned why Catholics seeming to celebrate suffering. It is not the evil that may have caused the suffering that is lauded, nor the pain itself, but rather that in imitation of Christ’s suffering, each of us is able to place our hope in the Lord, recognizing in a very real way that He is the hope of our lives.