The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering by Pope John Paul II

Homily for the Twenty-Second Sunday of Year A

by Fr. Tommy Lane

Why do we suffer? Why does God allow suffering? Why does God allow good people to suffer? These are questions that surface with Jesus’ rebuking Peter in today’s Gospel because he objected to Jesus’ prediction of his sufferings (Matt 16:23), and Jesus saying that anyone who wants to be his follower must take up his cross (Matt 16:24). Why do we have to take up a cross to follow Jesus as he asked in the Gospel today?

Our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris on the Christian meaning of human suffering addressed this question and offered us many insights into the question of suffering. In his letter Pope John Paul looked at all the important passages in Sacred Scripture that address the question of suffering so his letter is really a beautiful commentary on passages in Scripture on the mystery of suffering. Therefore he describes the Bible as “a great book about suffering.” (Salvifici Doloris §6) (All § references that follow are to this letter.)

In the Scriptures we see man experiencing all kinds of painful situations. Whenever we suffer we experience evil. What then is evil? Evil is a distortion of good (§7) But why do we suffer? To answer the question, Pope John Paul began by looking at the Book of Job. Job was a just man who lost his sons and daughters as well as all his possessions. His friends came to visit him and told him he must have sinned, he must have done something wrong. Job was a just and honest man and their explanation of his sufferings was incorrect but that was the only way at that time before Jesus that they could explain the suffering he was undergoing. Job’s friends expressed a truth in the conscience of humanity, that sin deserves punishment (§10). (Here I give an example of such a truth in the conscience of humanity relevant for a particular time and place.)

To understand the true answer to the “why” of suffering we must look at the revelation of God’s love, Jesus (§13).

Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: we are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. Christ causes us to enter into the mystery and to discover the “why” of suffering, as far as we are capable of grasping the sublimity of divine love (Salvifici Doloris §13)

Pope John Paul continued,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Jesus was given to us to protect us from the definitive suffering and evil which is death and therefore he must conquer sin and death. (§14) Jesus overcame sin by being obedient to his Father even to death, and he overcame death by his resurrection. (§14) Although we still suffer, Jesus’ victory over sin and death “throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering: the light of salvation.” (§15) Jesus especially ministered to those who suffered and “at the heart of his teaching there are the eight beatitudes, which are addressed to people tried by various sufferings in their temporal life.” (§16) Jesus often spoke to his disciples of the suffering and death that awaited him (§16) as we heard in our Gospel today.

Precisely by means of his Cross he must strike at the roots of evil, planted in the history of man and in human souls. Precisely by means of his Cross he must accomplish the work of salvation. (Salvifici Doloris §16)

That is why Jesus rebukes Peter when he suggested that he not suffer. (§16) For the same reason when Peter tried to defend Jesus in Gethsemane Jesus told him to put his sword away (Matt 26:52) and said he should drink the cup given him by the Father (John 18:11). The prophet Isaiah predicted Jesus saving us by his Passion,

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:5)

Jesus’ suffering is “substitutive” suffering, suffering instead of us, it is redemptive (§17). Therefore Pope John Paul said Jesus has given us the answer to the question about the meaning of suffering not only by his teaching but above all by his suffering (§18). In the Passion of Jesus something new has been added to our understanding of suffering, “it has been linked to love” (§18). Because of the Passion of Jesus there is a new situation for all human suffering just as Job was able to say in his sufferings, “I know that my Redeemer lives ...” (§19) Therefore each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ (§20). Paul writes about sharing in the suffering of Christ,

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies…he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus (2 Cor 4:8-11)

In the second reading today, in his letter to the Romans Paul urged,

present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship (Rom 12:1)

If we share our sufferings with the sufferings of Christ we rediscover them, “through faith, enriched with a new content and new meaning.” (§20) Therefore Paul writes to the Galatians,

I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…(Gal 2:19-20)

When we share our sufferings with Christ we suffer for the Kingdom and through our suffering we become mature enough to enter his Kingdom (§21). Therefore Pope John Paul saw suffering containing “a special call to the virtue…” (Salvifici Doloris §23)

Pope John Paul pointed out that Paul went a stage further in understanding suffering in his letter to the Colossians saying that “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24) (Salvifici Doloris §24) Does this mean that Redemption was not fully accomplished by Christ? No.

It only means that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering...Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits but at the same time he did not bring it to a close…Yes, it seems to be part of the very essence of Christ's redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed. (Salvifici Doloris §24)

Pope John Paul then explained that it is precisely in the Church that the suffering of Christ is completed (since it is in the Church that we unite our human sufferings with the sufferings of Christ). This also highlights the divine and human nature of the Church (§24)

Whenever we suffer we experience evil and evil is a distortion of the good. Pope John Paul II used the Scriptures in Salvifici Doloris to enter into the Christian meaning of human suffering. The meaning of suffering is given us above all in Jesus’ suffering which is his love for us, for our redemption. When we share our sufferings with Christ we suffer for the Kingdom and grow in virtue and “complete…Christ’s afflictions…for the sake of the Church.

Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2008

This homily was delivered in a parish in Maryland near where I have joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, Emmitsburg, Maryland.

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