Accepting trials in obedience to God’s will, the suffering ‘complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the Church’
The role of suffering as a special apostolate in the Church was the subject of the Holy Father's catechesis at the General Audience of Wednesday, 27 April. Through the Cross he said, the Gospel of suffering is revealed as the path to the Resurrection, a sharing in the newness of life in which all sorrow will be turned into joy. The Holy Father's address was the 90th in the series on the mystery of the Church and was given in Italian.
1. The reality of suffering is ever before our eyes and often in the body, soul and heart of each of us. Apart from faith, pain has always been a great riddle of human existence. Ever since Jesus, however, redeemed the world by his passion and death, a new perspective has been opened: through suffering one can grow in self-giving and attain the highest degree of love (cf. Jn 13:1), because of him who "loved us and gave himself for us" (Eph 5:2). As a sharing in the mystery of the Cross, suffering can now be accepted and lived as a co-operation in Christ's saving mission. The Second Vatican Council expressed the Church's awareness that all who are troubled and oppressed are specially united with the suffering Christ for the salvation of the world (cf. Lumen gentium, n. 41).
In proclaiming the Beatitudes, Jesus himself considered every manifestation of human suffering: the poor, the hungry the afflicted, those who are scorned by society or unjustly persecuted. Looking at the world, we too discover so much misery in a variety of ancient and new forms: the signs of suffering are everywhere. Let us then speak of them in this catechesis, seeking better to discover the divine plan guiding humanity on so painful a path and the saving value that suffering, like work, has for the whole human race.
2. In the Cross the "Gospel of suffering" has been revealed to Christians (Salvifici doloris, n. 25). Jesus recognized in his sacrifice the way established by the Father for the redemption of humanity, and he followed this way. He also told his disciples that they would be associated with this sacrifice: "I tell you truly you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices" (Jn 16:20). This prediction, however, is not the only one, nor is it the final word, because it is completed by the announcement that their pain will be changed into joy: "You will grieve for a time, but your grief will be turned into joy" (Jn 16:20). In the perspective of Redemption, Christ's passion is orientated towards the Resurrection. Human beings too are thus associated with the mystery of the Cross in order to share joyfully in the mystery of the Resurrection.
3. For this reason Jesus did not hesitate to proclaim the blessedness of those who suffer: "Blest are the sorrowing, they shall be consoled.... Blest are those persecuted for holiness' sake; the reign of God is theirs. Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in heaven" (Mt 5:4, 10-12). This blessedness can only be understood if one admits that human life is not limited to the time spent on earth, but is wholly directed to perfect joy and fullness of life in the hereafter. Earthly suffering, when accepted in love, is like a bitter kernel containing the seed of new life, the treasure of divine glory to be given man in eternity. Although the sight of a world burdened with evil and misfortunes of every sort is often so wretched, nevertheless the hope of a better world of love and grace is hidden within it. It is hope that is nourished on Christ's promise. With this support, those who suffer united in faith with him already experience in this life a joy that can seem humanly unexplainable. Heaven in fact begins on earth, beatitude is anticipated, so to speak, in the Beatitudes. "In holy people", St. Thomas Aquinas said, "there is a beginning of future happiness..." (cf. Summa Theol., I-II, q.69, a.2; cf. II-II, q.8, a.7).
Human trials find meaning in Jesus' suffering
4. Another basic principle of the Christian faith is the fruitfulness of suffering and, hence, the call of all who suffer to unite themselves with Christ's redemptive sacrifice. Suffering thus becomes an offering, an oblation: this has happened and still does in so many holy souls. Especially those who are oppressed by apparently senseless moral suffering find in Jesus' moral suffering the meaning of their own trials and they go with him into Gethsemani. In him they find the strength to accept pain with holy abandon and trusting obedience to the Father's will. And they feel rising from within their hearts the prayer of Gethsemani: "But let it be as you would have it, Father, not as I" (Mk 14:36). They mystically identify with Jesus' resolve when he was arrested: "Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?" (Jn 18:11). In Christ they also find the courage to offer their pain for the salvation of all, having learned the mysterious fruitfulness of every sacrifice from the offering on Calvary, according to the principle set forth by Jesus: "I solemnly assure you, unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit" (Jn 12:24).
5. Jesus' teaching is confirmed by the Apostle Paul, who had a very vivid awareness of sharing in Christ's Passion in his own life and of the co-operation he could thus offer for the good of the Christian community. Because of union with Christ in suffering, he could speak of completing in himself what was lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his Body, the Church (cf. Col 1:24). Convinced of the fruitfulness of his union with the redeeming Passion, he stated: "Death is at work in us, but life in you" (2 Cor 4:12). The tribulations of his life as an Apostle did not discourage Paul, but strengthened his hope and trust, because he realized that the Passion of Christ was the source of life: "As we have shared much in the suffering of Christ so through Christ do we share abundantly in his consolation. If we are afflicted it is for your encouragement and salvation" (2 Cor 1:5-6). Looking at this model, the disciples of Christ better understand the Master's lesson, the vocation to the Cross, for the full growth of the life of Christ in their personal lives and of the mysterious fruitfulness that benefits the Church.
6. The disciples of Christ have the privilege of understanding the "Gospel of suffering", which has a salvific value, at least implicitly, at all times, because "down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ a special grace" (Salvifici doloris, n. 26). Whoever follows Christ, whoever accepts St Paul's theology of pain, knows that a precious grace, a divine favour, is connected with suffering, even if it is a grace that remains a mystery to us, because it is hidden under the appearances of a painful destiny. It is certainly not easy to discover in suffering the genuine divine love that wishes, through the acceptance of suffering, to raise human life to the level of Christ's saving love. Faith, however, enables us to cling to this mystery and, despite everything, brings peace and joy to the soul of the one suffering: at times he even says with St Paul: "I am filled with consolation, and despite my many afflictions my joy knows no bounds" (2 Cor 7:4).
'What you do for the least of my brothers'
7. Whoever relives the spirit of Christ's sacrifice is also moved to imitate him by helping others who are suffering. Jesus relieved the countless human sufferings round about him. In this respect too he is a perfect model. And he prescribed the command of mutual love that implies compassion and reciprocal aid. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches generous initiative on behalf of the suffering! He revealed his presence in all who are in need and pain, so that every act of helping the poor is done to Christ himself (cf. Mt 25:35-40).
In conclusion, I would like to leave you, my listeners, with Jesus' own words: "I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me" (Mt 25:40). This means that suffering, intended to sanctify those who suffer, is also meant to sanctify those who help and comfort them. We are always within the heart of the mystery of the saving Cross!
L'Osservatore Romano May 4, 1994