Making sense of suffering
How suffering with Christ can redeem the world
Moira Walsh knows all about redemptive suffering. She didn’t do the suffering herself, but she’s eternally grateful for someone who offered it up for her conversion.
As a junior at Brown University, Walsh entered the Catholic Church only to find out later that her friend’s mother had been offering up all the pain of her cancer for Walsh’s conversion.
“God certainly used this to convert me. I have no doubt about it. I felt humbled, honored and grateful. And I felt the desire to be faithful and make it worth her while,” said Walsh, a former philosophy professor at Boston College who now serves as director of educational programming for Opus Dei.
Catholic teaching on suffering doesn’t explain why God allows physical and emotional distress, but it does reveal that human suffering can be redemptive. Simply put, we can unite our suffering to Christ’s suffering for specific intentions and the salvation of the world.
“The theology of redemptive suffering helps because it invests the human experience of suffering with Christian meaning,” said Russell Shaw, author of Does Suffering Make Sense? “The worst kind of suffering is the kind without any meaning.”
Understanding redemptive suffering starts with contemplating Jesus crucified on Calvary.
“There is no such thing as human suffering being redemptive if Christ’s suffering had not been redemptive first,” said Fr. Jonathan Morris, Fox News analyst and author of The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts. “Redemptive suffering is us participating on a mystical level in the salvific act of Christ, who chose to show his love for us by carrying out the ultimate act of dying for us.”
The concept of uniting our pain to Christ comes from St. Paul, who wrote: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church” (Col 1:24).
Pope John Paul II, who was well acquainted with suffering, explained this scripture passage in his 1984 apostolic letter Salvific Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering).
“The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help — just as it helped him — to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.”
Some have misinterpreted St. Paul to mean that the Lord’s passion was inadequate.
“It’s not that Christ’s action was not enough suffering,” said Fr. Morris, “or that it wasn’t accomplished once and for all, but that he has chosen to leave open that redemptive act so that we can participate in it.
“It is the pedagogy of God to involve us in the carrying out of his salvation. For example, we can take part in evangelization. Another example: Men and women generate life when they have children. Both are ways that we participate in the life of God, and he wants us involved in the ultimate act of salvation.”
Offering it up
Catholics may remember being asked to “offer it up” when things are difficult. But offering up suffering without love misses the point.
“It’s not enough to just say, ‘I offer it up’,” said Fr. Morris. “What’s missing are three things: ‘Lord, I offer this up to you out of love for you, and for the sake of this intention, and for your Church.’ It rings hollow just to tell someone who is suffering to ‘offer it up.’ It doesn’t participate in salvation history unless it is done with love, as Christ is inviting us to do.”
Moira Walsh puts it another way.
“When you go through suffering and accept it with this intention in mind, you are saying to God, ‘I love you more than this.’ It helps purify your soul because you are saying that you are willing to accept any suffering that God permits in your life, that you love and trust God no matter what.”
Few dispute that John Paul II’s suffering heroically showed the world that pain united to Christ can be a powerful witness. In his final days, the Pope had been hospitalized with an inflamed larynx. He then returned to the Vatican. Shaw, who also works as an Our Sunday Visitor correspondent, witnessed what proved to be one of the Pope’s final public appearances.
“I went to St. Peter’s Square with a few thousand people to hear the Angelus. It was a cold, damp, raw sort of day. The question on my mind was: Will he do it or not?”
Just before noon, the ailing pontiff appeared in the window and attempted to speak. “It was so painful to hear,” Shaw recalled. “He was gasping for breath. I remember thinking: Why did he do it? Was this just Polish stubbornness? Later, I realized that it was the understanding of his vocation. At this point, it was a vocation of coredemptive suffering. He was determined to live this out to the end.”
Father Morris believes that people who are faced with great suffering have two choices: to become bitter or better.
“God always respects our free will,” he said. “His promise to bring out a greater good is included in the invitation to be a part of his plan. If we reject it, that’s when we’ll never see that promise fulfilled.”
Sabrina Arena-Ferrisi is a staff writer for Legatus Magazine.