Now I rejoice in my sufferings …(Col 1:24)

By Simone Rizkallah

This is the first of a series of seven meditations examining the Christian meaning of suffering according to the thought of Pope St. John Paul II in his 1984 Apostolic Letter, “Salvifici Doloris.”

Pope St. John Paul II was no stranger to suffering. Among the challenges he faced in life include living under Nazi and then communist occupation in Poland, attending clandestine seminary, losing both his parents and his brother at a young age, watching his friends, including his fellow seminarians, priests and Jewish friends be murdered during the Second World War, surviving a papal assassination attempt and then spending his last years of life crippled by Parkinson’s disease. These experiences provide enough qualification to be able to speak with credibility on the subject of suffering. John Paul writes, “Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence” (Paragraph 2, “Salvifici Doloris”). The pope is making the bold, Christian claim that while suffering belongs to all creatures, it is human suffering that has the possibility of being redeemed precisely because it is human suffering. Put another way, because men and women have dignity, so too does their suffering have dignity.

Every creature suffers, but only man (because of his gift of reason) is aware he is suffering and because of this recognition, may ask why. In his foreword for the 1962 edition of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” (his famous book about why Frankl psychologically survived his time in a concentration camp), Gordon W. Allport wrote: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in the suffering. This search is one of the noblest, dignified and responsible endeavors of the rational animal called man.”

The idea that suffering, or rather the search for its meaning, belongs to “man’s transcendence,” gives it a vocational quality. John Paul cites the apostle Paul in his epistle to the Colossians (1:24): “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” Man is mysteriously called to participate in suffering and therefore to really and truly participate in the salvation offered by the Church for the Church. Furthermore, Paul writes: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” (Par 1, SD)

John Paul notes that this mature, spiritual judgment and experience of Paul’s (the recognition that suffering is not only vocational, and therefore meaningful but that it can be experienced with joy) is one that seems “to be found at the end of the long road.” (Par 1, SD) Joy is certainly not man’s first reaction to suffering. Moreover, the etymology of the Greek word for “rejoice” has the same root as the Greek word for grace (“chara”/“charis”). The implication is that this kind of joy, the joy of suffering, is a certain kind of gift or grace. It is not something that can be derived by human effort even if human effort and patience in long-suffering is the necessary condition to receive this kind of grace.

Is it possible to rejoice like St. Paul? Or hope to at some point in one’s spiritual pilgrimage? The hypothetical Christian response is in the affirmative. In a secular, post-Christian world where spiritual, moral, emotional and psychological suffering is ultimately meaningless and the illusion of control is bound to expire, the Christian claim is one that is singularly dignified and glorious, precisely because it is meaningful and redemptive.

Simone Rizkallah is the director of program growth at Endow Groups, a nonprofit organization that creates study guides to help women access the rich theological inheritance of the Church to be used most ideally in a small-group community. Endow connects women with rich theological inheritance of the Church.

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