How to Reclaim Hope Through Redemptive Suffering
On October 22, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. John Paul II. St. John Paul II is truly a saint of our times, having been canonized in 2014 (a mere nine years after his death). Throughout his life, St. John Paul II was a champion of the truths of the Catholic faith, and his intense holiness was evident in both his words and in his actions. He worked tirelessly to uphold the truth and beauty contained in Catholicism and wrote extensively on various aspects of theological teaching, illuminating and clarifying them for the betterment of all Catholics. In his letter Salvifici Doloris, on the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering, St. John Paul II considers one of the most mystifying and important topics in the faith: why suffering exists in the world and how it is possible that suffering may be redemptive.
The idea of redemptive suffering permeates the life of the Catholic. We are reminded of its existence and its importance whenever we set foot in a Catholic church since one of the first things we see is the crucifix set in a prominent place. The sight of a crucifix, though common and simple, reminds us every time of the immensity of Christ’s sacrifice of Himself on the cross. We can also remember the events of the crucifixion each time we bless ourselves with the sign of the cross. Thinking of the cross, however, should not be entirely somber; although the reality of the crucifixion itself is sorrowful, it is inextricably linked to the joy of the resurrection. St. John Paul II considers this in his letter Salvifici Doloris.
St. John Paul II begins that letter with a meditation on the well-known words in Scripture: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life." This he considers to be the main tenet of the Catholic perception of redemptive suffering, saying that by these words we are introduced into “the very heart of God's salvific work.” St. John Paul II goes on to expound the fact that Christ entered the world to protect man against what he calls “definitive suffering,” namely suffering eternal damnation in the absence of God, and thus losing the possibility of eternal life with Him. Christ, by His sacrifice on the cross, submitted to death but in doing so overcame death to redeem the world. So it was that Christ not only redeemed His beloved people by means of suffering, but He also redeemed suffering itself by using it as a path to His resurrection. St. John Paul II describes that beautifully when he writes in the letter, “In the cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.”
This idea, as expressed here by St. John Paul II, is the heart of Christian life. He goes on to say, “Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished.” The beauty and immense depth of Christ’s redemption of mankind is something which should impact all we do in our Catholic lives. So it is that Catholics are able to have hope in times of suffering or sorrow, since it is through suffering and self-sacrifice that we are able to unite ourselves close to the suffering and thus the resurrection of Christ. Although it is certainly difficult to undergo suffering, and there may be times in which we feel hopeless, we can realize that it is through suffering that we are made new and become worthy of life in the Kingdom of God. St. John Paul II closes his letter with this idea, saying, “Christ has led us into this kingdom through His suffering. And also through suffering those surrounded by the mystery of Christ's Redemption became mature enough to enter this kingdom.”
St. John Paul II himself was no stranger to suffering. Throughout the twenty-six years of his pontificate, he put the needs of the Church before his own person. It was through his immense self-sacrifice that he was able to accomplish a number of truly great actions, such as helping to end Communist rule in portions of Europe, upholding the Church’s teaching on difficult topics such as contraception, and improving relations between the Church and religions such as Judaism, Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy. St. John Paul II also made great efforts to revitalize the lives of Catholics everywhere, especially those of young people. This fact was so significant that it is posthumously recognized by the fact that young people are placed under the patronage of St. John Paul II.
All of this goes to show that St. John Paul II was not the kind of scholar solely focused on studying the theological aspect of redemptive suffering, but rather was working to live out the ideals he so beautifully illuminated in his writings. This fact was especially apparent in his later life, as he deteriorated in health after several bouts of illness. He continued in his role as pope despite suffering in numerous ways, which were worsened by the fact that he was eventually diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001. He suffered with dignity until the very end, only taking leave of his papal duties at the very end of his pontificate when he was rendered incapable by a bout of influenza and several ensuing complications.
St. John Paul II has much to teach us about enduring suffering in a holy and hopeful way, and continuing to promote the truths of our faith despite difficult exterior circumstances. One of the ways we can learn from him is by considering his efforts in finding solutions to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church while undergoing personal tribulations. Despite intense suffering due to his Parkinson’s disease, he summoned all American cardinals to the Vatican in 2002 to discuss solutions and work to implement changes that would help prevent what he described as gravely evil, saying directly that there was “no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young.”
This particular situation is unfortunately incredibly relevant to our lives now sixteen years later, as the Catholic Church is plagued by allegation after allegation of clerical sexual abuse. It is a difficult time to remain hopeful in the truths of Catholicism, but we can take several things to heart here. Firstly, although we are suffering and the Church is hurting from the actions of evil men, we can remember that the truths of Catholicism far exceed the flawed nature of its members, and Christ prevails in all things despite the failings of men. Secondly, we can recall the words of St. John Paul II and consider how suffering is the way in which man becomes worthy of entering the Kingdom of God, and consequently be heartened and spurred on to do what is right and persevere in condemning what is evil.
In all of these things, we would do well to remember the words of St. Josemaria Escriva when he said, “He did not say you would not be troubled, you would not be tempted, you would not be distressed, but he did say you would not be overcome.” Even though our circumstances here on earth may appear hopeless, we can take heart in the fact that Christ is always King and Redeemer, and all of the suffering we may undergo can work to lead us closer to Him. The beauty of the Catholic faith is that all things may ultimately become a path to God, and so it is that suffering becomes a refining fire through which we become holy. May we each follow the example of St. John Paul II and become, as he wrote in Salvifici Doloris, “a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” St. John Paul II, pray for us, and may we offer our suffering to Christ and so open wide the doors to Him!