Pope John Paul II and the redemptive power of suffering

Pope John Paul II and the redemptive power of suffering

Fr Paul Stuart

As Pope John Paul lay dying, I was drawn to his 1984 Apostolic Letter about the redemptive nature of suffering, Salvifici Doloris. In his own life, in his own body, his words and thoughts about suffering were to find courageous expression.

The Holy Father saw that suffering provoked three human responses: compassion, admiration and fear.

The very first human and original sin can also been seen as a "happy fault" because it also brought about God's loving and redeeming plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. So too can suffering. For all its evil and awful aspects, it can be seen as an experience from which good can be achieved.

It prompts compassion from others whereby anyone might be called to imitate the Good Samaritan in order to aid another who is suffering. The aid might be medical attention, nursing care, moral support, prayers. It might prompt wider charity so that those touched by others' suffering may apply charity to a larger group or cause as we saw recently in Indonesia.

Human suffering can bring the best out in us as was often commented on when Australians in particular were recognised internationally for their generous response in material aid for the people of Asia devastated by the tsunami. The sufferer might also be transformed in his or her suffering to one who might acquire deeper empathy for others who suffer so that the suffering of strangers is now the suffering of fellow victims invoking a solidarity in suffering.

Suffering is typically identified with vulnerability, weakness and loss. Yet John Paul saw the power and strength that could emanate from suffering, surround suffering, or be generated by suffering, in not a dissimilar way that is accomplished by sacrifice or even martyrdom.

Who has never been inspired, at some time or in some way by the courage displayed by a person battling and struggling with some illness or misfortune? These kinds of challenges to the human spirit can bring the best out in the sufferer and in those who draw inspiration from their determination, perseverance or hopefulness. What a paradox that those who are suffering in some way can give the rest of us strength?

Suffering presents a challenge that reminds us of our own mortality, weakness, powerlessness. This can bring about fear as well as challenge our faith. Who has never, in the face of human suffering, calamity or misery, asked their God, why? It is one thing to fear death and what does or does not come after life. It is another to be rocked in your faith and then to question God's love or even God's existence.

The Holy Father here sees an opportunity for those so challenged to undergo their own Gethsemane, their own Calvary, their own feeling of abandonment that hopefully and joyfully may lead also to their own conversion, their own resurrection and unity with Christ and God in the closest of bonds and meetings.

When sufferers truly unite their pain with Christ's, and offer it up in sacrifice for whatever intention, not least their own sins, then the redeeming nature of suffering is allowed to have full effect. Ultimately in the mess and anguish of suffering, a dignity can be realised that may never be appreciated by the spiritually blind and deaf culture that feeds into our newspapers and television.

The stories of Job and of Jesus, their trials and triumphs, are given to us to draw hope and inspiration from what in body and mind seems to be the worst life can dish out, but yet in spirit can restore and renew.

Giants in history sometimes have "the Great" added after their name. I suspect we will honour Karol Wojtyla in this way. I hope so, but not because of his greatness as a world celebrity. Rather, I hope so because of his greatness as a servant - of Christ and of truth, and a servant to the Church which today suffers and bears the wounds of her groom Jesus Christ.

One legacy of John Paul's I have seen and will see again are the millions of young people, a percentage of whom make the World Youth Day pilgrimages every two years, who share the Pope's vision and values, and as tomorrow's parents, priests and religious will live by his vision and values in order to be true to Christ and make Him known and loved by many more.

Father Paul Stuart, former Director of Vocations and Dean of Students at Melbourne's Corpus Christi Seminary, is presently completing a doctorate.

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