One of the most neglected writings of John Paul II – unjustly, if understandably – is his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, or On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering . No one likes to suffer. Most of us don’t even like to talk about suffering. Yet John Paul II, following the Apostle Paul and the entire Catholic Tradition, maintains that it is precisely in suffering that Christ displayed his solidarity with humanity, and in which we can grow in solidarity with Christ, who is our life.
This is the first of a series in which I will read and reflect upon Salvifici Doloris. Though I do hope that you enjoy it, the series is mostly an exercise for myself to become more acquainted with the Man of Sorrows.
OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF
JOHN PAUL II
TO THE BISHOPS, TO THE PRIESTS,
TO THE RELIGIOUS FAMILIES
AND TO THE FAITHFUL
OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
ON THE CHRISTIAN MEANING
OF HUMAN SUFFERING
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and dear brothers and sisters in Christ,I
1. Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the Apostle Paul says: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church”(1).
These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the Word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason Saint Paul writes: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake”(2). 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.
How strange it sounds. Joy at suffering? Even granting that Christ’s suffering is the means of our salvation, why would Paul rejoice in his own suffering? Because in suffering for the sake of others, for the sake of the Church, Paul found himself united ever more closely with Christ.
2. The theme of suffering – precisely under the aspect of this salvific meaning – seems to fit profoundly into the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption as an extraordinary Jubilee of the Church. And this circumstance too clearly favours the attention it deserves during this period. Independently of this fact, it is a universal theme that accompanies man at every point on earth: in a certain sense it co-exists with him in the world, and thus demands to be constantly reconsidered. Even though Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, wrote that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now”(3), even though man knows and is close to the sufferings of the animal world, nevertheless what we express by the word “suffering” seems to be particularly essential to the nature of man. It is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense “destined” to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.
Yes, the whole creation has been groaning in travail. And now it has brought forth the firstborn from the dead. But the travail continues, because He is the firstborn of many brothers and sisters. And this travail is not just general, but particularly human, and yet more than human. Within our temporal world it is a revelation of eternity.
3. The theme of suffering in a special way demands to be faced in the context of the Holy Year of the Redemption, and this is so, in the first place, because the Redemption was accomplished through the Cross of Christ, that is, through his suffering. And at the same time, during the Holy Year of the Redemption we recall the truth expressed in the Encyclical Redemptor Hominis: in Christ “every man becomes the way for the Church”(4). It can be said that man in a special fashion becomes the way for the Church when suffering enters his life. This happens, as we know, at different moments in life, it takes place in different ways, it assumes different dimensions; nevertheless, in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man’s earthly existence.
Assuming then that throughout his earthly life man walks in one manner or another on the long path of suffering, it is precisely on this path that the Church at all times – and perhaps especially during the Holy Year of the Redemption – should meet man. Born of the mystery of Redemption in the Cross of Christ, the Church has to try to meet man in a special way on the path of his suffering. In this meeting man “becomes the way for the Church”, and this way is one of the most important ones.
Because of the Incarnation, man has been endowed with an even greater dignity than that of a creature made in the image of God. We have been been granted the eternal eikon of the Father in human flesh, that we might participate in the divine nature. Because our eikon is human flesh, each individual man becomes a “way for the Church”: a way to perceive Christ. And it is especially so in those who suffer. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
4. This is the origin also of the present reflection, precisely in the Year of the Redemption: a meditation on suffering. Human suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart, and also by the deep imperative of faith. About the theme of suffering these two reasons seem to draw particularly close to each other and to become one: the need of the heart commands us to overcome fear, and the imperative of faith—formulated, for example, in the words of Saint Paul quoted at the beginning—provides the content, in the name of which and by virtue of which we dare to touch what appears in every man so intangible: for man, in his suffering, remains an intangible mystery.
Suffering must evoke compassion – the co-suffering of love. This is the message of the Cross. Here we can enter the mystery of what it means to be human, and a child of God.