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The Witness of a
Cross-carrying Pope

  'Suffering Has a Dignity'

  Pain's Hidden Power

  A Way of Loving

It is no secret that Pope John Paul II has clearly entered that part of the human journey marked by suffering and failing health.

Last fall Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said of the Holy Father: "The pain is written on his face. His figure is bent, and he needs to support himself on his pastoral staff. He leans on the cross, on the crucifix...."

It is public knowledge that the pope has a Parkinson's-like condition, if not the disease itself. Indeed, if Pope John Paul II leans on the cross, it is no doubt to draw strength so he can carry his own.

'Suffering Has a Dignity'

The pope's witness in boldly carrying out his papal responsibilities, despite physical ailments, provides a heart-lifting model for the many afflicted people of this planet. Many of us, no doubt, if challenged with trembling arm, slurred speech or shuffling gait, might have long ago retreated from public view.

In refusing to act similarly, the pope offers a model of how to respond to suffering. By not trying to hide his illness, observes Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope teaches that "even age has a message, and suffering has a dignity and a salvific force."

Besides being a living witness to the mystery of suffering, Pope John Paul II has often written on this theme. The approaching season of Lent, in which we recall Jesus' way of the cross, is a good time for us to ponder the true meaning of suffering.

In his apostolic letter The Christian Meaning of Suffering (1984), the pope suggests that, when we approach Christ to ask about the meaning of suffering, we cannot help noticing that the person to whom the question is put "is himself suffering and wishes to answer from the cross, from the heart of his own suffering....

"Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering," the pope points out, "but before all else says: 'Follow me!' Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world....Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him."

In 1993, the pope inaugurated the Annual World Day of the Sick as a way to bring more attention to the sufferings of humanity and to the mystery of suffering itself. The event takes place each February 11 on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, "whose shrine at the foot of the Pyrenees," the pope says, "has become a temple of human suffering."

In his Message for the First Annual World Day of the Sick (1993), the pope assured afflicted people all over the world: "Your sufferings, accepted and borne with unshakable faith, when joined to those of Christ take on extraordinary value for the life of the Church and the good of humanity."

In the same Message, the pope also asserts that suffering can be redemptive: "In the light of Christ's death and resurrection, illness no longer appears as an exclusively negative event," he said. "Rather, it is seen opportunity to release love..., to transform the whole of human civilization into a civilization of love."

Pain's Hidden Power

If we see Pope John Paul II and thousands of others like him carrying their infirmities in this spirit, we can be greatly encouraged in our own encounters with sufferings and pain.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the great Jesuit priest-anthropologist, in his Hymn of the Universe, wrote with similar confidence and faith about the "potential energy" contained in suffering. "Suffering holds within it," he affirms, "the ascensional force of the world....For if all the sick people in the world were simultaneously to turn their sufferings into a single shared longing for the speedy completion of the kingdom of God..., what a vast leap towards God the world would thereby make!

"If all those who suffer in the world were to unite their sufferings so that the pain of the world should become one single grand act of consciousness, of sublimation, of unification, would not this be one of the most exalted forms in which the mysterious work of creation could be manifested to our eyes?"

A Way of Loving

As we approach the Seventh Annual World Day of the Sick (February 11) and the Lenten season, we do well to consider our own attitudes toward suffering in light of the above.

"Our human choice," it has been said, "is not between pain and no pain, but between the pain of loving and the pain of not loving." In other words, we clearly have no choice as to whether pain will enter our life or not, for surely it will. We do have a choice, however, to decide whether our pain will be a "pain of loving" or just an empty, barren pain devoid of love.

We can draw a similar meaning from Pope John Paul II's words and, particularly, from his own living witness, as he continues to carry with love and faith the cross of suffering. It is the same meaning we find in the example of Christ and in the words of Teilhard de Chardin.

We can convert our pain into "the pain of loving." For we can trustingly bear our pain, as Christ did, as a way of loving God and neighbor and the whole family of humanity. In so doing, we contribute with dignity to the world's transformation and to the "speedy completion of the kingdom of God." — J.W.

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