Man is called to joy and to a happy life, but everyday he experiences many forms of pain, and illness is the most frequent and common expression of human suffering. In the face of it we spontaneously wonder: "Why do we suffer? For what do we suffer? What does people's suffering mean? Can physical or moral pain be a positive experience?"
Each one of us has certainly asked these questions more than once, either from our bed of pain, during convalescence, before undergoing surgery, or whenever we have seen a loved one suffer.
For Christians these are not unanswerable questions. Suffering is a mystery, often inscrutable to reason. It is part of the mystery of the human person, which is only explained in Jesus Christ, the One who reveals to man his own identity. Only through him will we find the meaning of all that is human.
"Suffering", as I wrote in the Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, "cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within ... However, this interior process does not always follow the same pattern ... Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ's saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. The answer which comes through this sharing ... is above all a call: 'Follow me! Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross' (n. 26). This is why, when faced with the enigma of suffering, we Christians can say: 'Your will be done, Lord', and repeat with Jesus: 'My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will' (Mt 26: 39)."
Man's greatness and dignity consist in being a child of God and being called to live in intimate union with Christ. This participation in his life brings with it a sharing in his pain. The most innocent of men, the God made man was the great sufferer who took upon himself the weight of our failings and sins. When he announced to his disciples that the Son of Man had to suffer much, to be crucified and on the third day to rise again, he also warned that anyone who wanted to come after him would have to deny himself, take up his cross each day and follow him (cf. Lk 9: 22ff).
Therefore, there is a close relationship between Jesus' Cross, a symbol of supreme suffering and the price of our true freedom, and our pains, sufferings, afflictions, hardships and anguish, which can weigh on our souls or take root in our bodies. Suffering is transformed and elevated, when in those moments we become aware of God's closeness and solidarity. This is the certainty that gives inner peace and spiritual joy to the person who suffers generously and offers his pain "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Rom 12: 1). The person who suffers in this way is not a burden to others, but by his own suffering contributes to the salvation of all.
Seen in this way, illness and the darker moments of human life acquire a profound dimension, even one of hope. We are never alone before the mystery of suffering: we are with Christ who gives meaning to all life: in moments of peace and joy, as well as in moments of affliction and sorrow. With Christ, everything has meaning, even suffering and death; without him, nothing can be fully explained, not even the legitimate pleasures God has joined to the various moments of human life.
The position of sick persons in the world and in the Church is not in any way passive. As I wrote in my Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici: "The Lord addresses his call to each and every one. Even the sick are sent forth as labourers into the Lord's vineyard: the weight that wearies the body's members and dissipates the soul's serenity is far from dispensing a person from working in the vineyard. Instead, the sick are called to live their human and Christian vocation and to participate in the growth of the kingdom of God in a new and even more valuable manner ... Many of the sick can become bearers of the 'joy inspired by the Holy Spirit in much afflictions' (1 Thes 1: 6), and be witnesses to Jesus' Resurrection" (n. 53).
In this regard, we should remember that those who live in sickness are not only called to unite their suffering with the Passion of Christ, but to play an active part in the proclamation of the Gospel, bearing witness by their own faith experience to the strength of the new life and happiness that come from encountering the risen Lord (cf. 2 Cor 4: 10-11; 1 Pt 4: 13; Rom 8: 18ff.).
With these thoughts, I have wished to inspire in each and every one of you the sentiments which enable us to undergo these present trials in a supernatural way, seeing them as an opportunity to discover God among the shadows and doubts and to glimpse the broad horizons that can be seen from the height of our daily crosses.
Edited text of Pope John Paul II's Message of 24 January 1999 at the Adolfo Lopez Mateos Hospital in Mexico City.