The Witness of a
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.
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 as...an
opportunity to release love..., to transform the whole of human civilization
into a civilization of love."
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
"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?"
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
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.