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Martyrdom & Suffering

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John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

There is no substitute for experience, especially the experience of suffering. That is why what the Holy Father, John Paul II, has to say about suffering is so revealing. He understands, from experience, and that is one reason why his words come from the heart and reach the hearts of those who hear them or read what he says.

Wherever the Pope goes, and to whatever group he speaks, his message on suffering is always the same: Be patient and endure the cross of Christ, but at the same time seek to find ways of relieving human suffering caused by hatred, injustice and greed.

In addressing ourselves to this vast and important subject, that figures so largely in the Pope’s mind, I thought it best to choose from statements of the pope in four different countries, ending with what he said at his Christmas midnight Mass in the first year of his pontificate. In sequence, let us hear the vicar of Christ speaking:

  1. To the sick people in Poland

  2. To the poor people in Latin America

  3. To the United Nations Assembly in America

  4. And to the faithful on Christmas Day in Rome.

Bodily Suffering in Sickness

Pope John Paul spoke to a gathering of sick people outside the Monastery of Jasna Gora, the famous Marian Shrine in Poland. This is what he told them:

My pilgrimage to Poland cannot go without a word to the sick, who are so close to my heart. I know, my dear friends, how in your letters to me you often write that you are offering for my intentions the heavy cross of your illness and suffering, that you are offering it for my mission as Pope. May the Lord reward you.
Every time I recite the morning, midday, and evening Angelus, I feel, dear fellow-countrymen, your special closeness to me. I unite myself spiritually with all of you. In a particular way I renew the spiritual unity that binds me to every person who is suffering, to everyone who is sick, to everyone confined to a hospital bed, to every invalid tied to a wheel-chair, to every person who in one way or another is meeting his cross.
Dear brothers and sisters, every contact with you, no matter where it has taken place in the past or takes place today, has been a source of deep spiritual emotion for me. I have always felt how insufficient were the words that I could speak to you and with which I could express my human compassion. I have the same impression today also, I feel the same way always. But there remains the one dimension, the one reality in which human suffering is essentially transformed. This dimension, this reality, is the cross of Christ. On His cross the Son of God accomplished the redemption of the world. It is through this mystery that every cross placed on someone’s shoulders acquires a dignity that is humanly inconceivable and becomes a sign of salvation for the person who carries it and also for others. “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s affliction” (Col 1:24), wrote St. Paul.
Therefore, uniting myself with all of you who are suffering throughout the land of Poland, in your homes, in the hospitals, the clinics, the dispensaries, the sanatoria---wherever you may be—I beg you to make use of the cross that has become part of each one of you for salvation. I pray for you to have light and spiritual strength in your suffering, that you may not lose courage but may discover for yourselves the meaning of suffering and may be able to relieve others by prayer and sacrifice. And do not forget me and the whole of the Church, and the cause of the Gospel and peace that I am serving by Christ’s will. You who are weak and humanly incapable, be a source of strength for your brother and father who is at your side in prayer and heart.

These are the words of a father who understands. They are also the words of Christ’s Vicar teaching the suffering faithful to profit from the cross they bear and unite their trials with Jesus.

What is the Pope also saying? He is emphasizing the value of pain, when joined with prayer, in moving the heart of God. Prayer, all prayer, is always efficacious. But prayer takes on extraordinary power to win graces, for the one praying and for all mankind, when it is united with patient suffering.

Indeed, suffering is already a prayer, when humbly accepted from the hands of God and offered to God—as Christ’s prayer on the Cross—in patient resignation to a divine will.

The Suffering of the Poor

We next turn to Latin America where a large part of the population is living in dire poverty. The address which the Pope gave to the poor people of the Los Minas district outside the Dominican capital was the first of three major talks he delivered to the poor on his pilgrimage to Latin America; the second was to a half-million Indios, as they are called, at Culican; and the third to the Barrio Santa Cecilia, one of the poorest districts in Guadalajara.

The message in all three places was basically the same. It was clear, outspoken and a call to action.

Beloved sons and daughters of the “Los Minas” district,
From the first moment of the preparation of my journey to your country, I gave priority to a visit to this district of yours, in order to be able to meet you.
And I wanted to come here just because it is a poor area, in order that you might have the opportunity – I would say to which you have the best claim – of being with the Pope. He sees in you a more living presence of the Lord, who sufferers in our neediest brothers, who continues to proclaim blessed the poor in spirit, those who suffer for justice and are pure in heart, who work for peace, have compassion, and keep their hope in Christ the Savior.
But on calling you to cultivate these spiritual and evangelical values, I wish to make you think of your dignity as men and children of God. I wish to encourage you to be rich in humanity, in love for the family, in solidarity with others. At the same time I exhort you to develop more and more the possibilities you have of obtaining a situation of greater human and Christian dignity.
But what I have to say does not end here. The sight of the reality in which you live must make so many people think of what can be done effectively to remedy your condition.
On behalf of these brothers of ours, I ask all those who can do so to help them to overcome their present situation, in order that, particularly with a better education, they may improve their minds and their hearts, and be architects of their own elevation and of a more advantageous integration in society.
With this urgent appeal to consciences, the Pope encourages your desires for advancement, and with great affection blessed you, your children, and relatives, and all the inhabitants of the district.

A few days later, this time in Mexico, at Guadalajara, the Pope again chose to speak to the poor. Here is what he said:

I keenly desired this meeting, inhabitants of the district of Santa Cecilia, because I feel solidarity with you and because, being poor, you are entitled to my particular concern.
I tell you the reason at once: the Pope loves you because you are God’s favorites. He Himself, on founding His family, the Church, kept poor and needy humanity in mind. To redeem it, He sent precisely His Son, who was born poor and lived among the poor in order to make us rich with His poverty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9).
As a consequence of this redemption, carried out in Him who became one of us, we are now no longer poor servants, we are sons, who can call God “Father” (cf. Gal 4:4-6). We are no longer abandoned, since, if we are sons of God, we are also heirs to the goods He offers abundantly to those who love Him (Mt 11:28). Could we doubt that a father gives good things to his children (cf. Mt 7:7ff)? Jesus Himself, our Savior, waits for us in order to relieve us when we are weary (cf. Mt 11:28). At the same time, he counts on our personal collaboration to make us more and more worthy, being the architects of our own human and moral elevation.
At the same time, faced with your overwhelming situation, I call with all my strength on those who have means and who feel they are Christians, to renew their minds and their hearts in order that, promoting greater justice and even giving something of their own, no one will lack proper food, clothing, housing, culture and work; all that gives dignity to the human person. The image of Christ on the cross, the price of the redemption of humanity, is a pressing appeal to spend our lives in putting ourselves in the service of the needy, in harmony with charity, which is generous and which does not sympathize with injustice, but with truth.

Whatever else the Pope is, he is not a starry idealist. While encouraging the poor to accept the trials of their poverty, he urges, in fact commands, those who are in power and have possessions, to do everything they can to relieve the wretched condition of the poor. Their salvation depends on it.

Suffering Caused by Ambition, Error and Exploitation

On October 2, 1979, the Holy Father gave an address to the United Nations (UN) in America. It was an address that lasted exactly sixty-one minutes and the session was attended by representatives of all the nations that belong to the UN.

The Pope gave the address on the invitation of the United Nations. What he said is worth reading and deserves meditation. I will select only the passage in which the Holy Father recalled what happened forty years before when thousands of people suffered and died in concentration camps. He also reminded his listeners that the suffering of persecution is still going on, where whole nations have, in effect, become concentration camps of tyranny and oppression. He pleads for a cessation of This man-created suffering.

Said the Pope:

Forty years after the outbreak of the Second World War, I wish to recall the whole of the experiences by individuals and nations that were sustained by a generation that is largely still alive. I had occasion not long ago to reflect again on some of those experiences, in one of the places that are most distressing and overflowing with contempt for man and his fundamental rights—the extermination camp of Oswiecim (Auschwitz), which I visited during my pilgrimage to Poland last June. This infamous place is unfortunately only one of the many scattered over the continent of Europe. Bu the memory of even one should be a warning sign on the path of humanity today, in order that every kind of concentration camp anywhere on earth may once and for all be done away with. And everything that recalls those horrible experiences should also disappear forever from the lives of nations and States, everything that is a continuation of those experiences under different forms, namely, the various kinds of torture and oppression, either physical or moral, carried out under any system, in any land.

No one can fault the Pope for not being courageous. As Vicar of the Crucified Christ he knows the value of suffering in its mysterious purpose in the Providence of God. But as Vicar also of the Healing Christ, he seeks to apply a remedy, in this case, to move the hearts of men to pity and their consciences to see the error of their ways. In God’s name, he begs the leaders of nations to end the massive suffering they often cause by their cowardice, or pride, or, as in the case of Communism, their blind pursuit of a Marxist Utopia, at the price of human suffering and pain.

The Lesson of Bethlehem

We close our reflections on the Holy Father’s reflections on human suffering by quoting from the closing paragraph of his homily on Christmas in St. Peter’s Basilica.

In context, the Pope had been commenting on the strange lack of hospitality that prevented Mary and Joseph from finding lodging in Bethlehem, and that required that Christ be born in a cave stable outside the city.

The words I shall quote are the conclusion of his homily, including the closing prayer:

On this night let us therefore think of all the human beings that fall victim to man’s inhumanity, to cruelty, to the lack of any respect, to contempt for the objective rights of every human being. Let us think of those who are lonely, old, or sick; of the homeless, those suffering from hunger, and those whose misery is the result of the exploitation and injustice of the economic systems. Let us also think of those who on this night are not allowed to take part in the liturgy of God’s birth and who have no priest to celebrate Mass. And let us give a thought also to those whose souls and consciences are tormented no less than their faith.
The stable at Bethlehem is the first place for solidarity with man: for one man’s solidarity with another and for all men’s with all men, especially with those for whom there is ‘no room at the inn’ (cf. Lk 2:7), whose personal rights are refused recognition.
The newborn Infant is wailing.
Who hears the baby’s wail?
But heaven speaks for Him, and it is heaven that explains it with these words:
“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy His favor” (Lk 2:14).
Touched by the fact of the birth of Jesus, we must hear this cry from heaven.
That cry must reach all the ends of the earth, all men must hear it anew.
A Son is given to us.
Christ is born to us. Amen.

There are some statements that hardly need a commentary. These words of our Holy Father speak for themselves.

Suffering in ourselves we are expected to bear, and unite them with the sufferings of our Lord.

Suffering in others may be caused by human coldness or neglect, or worse, by selfishness and pride. If so, let us ask ourselves what we can do – even must do – by our love to lessen the burden of human pain.

The Catholic Faith
Vol. 8, No. 2 - March/April 2002

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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