What if we could turn the tables on suffering — not by eliminating our pain altogether but by doing something to give it purpose and meaning? What if we could do good through our suffering? According to Saint John Paul II, that is precisely what our relationship with Jesus Christ empowers us to do.
We discover this profound truth in what the pope calls the Gospel, or "good news," of suffering:
"The witnesses of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ have handed on to the Church and to mankind a specific Gospel of suffering. The Redeemer himself wrote this Gospel, above all by his own suffering accepted in love, so that man 'should not perish but have eternal life.' This suffering, together with the living word of his teaching, became a rich source for all those who shared in Jesus’ sufferings among the first generation of his disciples and confessors and among those who have come after them down the centuries" (Salvifici Doloris, VI:25).
Obviously, Jesus didn't write the Gospel of suffering literally by putting quill to paper, but in his words and deeds recorded in Scripture, and passed on via the living Tradition of the Church, Jesus taught his disciples that their suffering, both individually and collectively, could be a part of his saving ministry. John Paul explains:
This Gospel of suffering reveals how we can do good by our suffering: (1) suffering for Jesus and (2) suffering with Jesus.
"The Gospel of suffering signifies not only the presence of suffering in the Gospel, as one of the themes of the Good News, but also the revelation of the salvific power and salvific significance of suffering in Christ's messianic mission, and subsequently, in the mission and vocation of the Church" (Salvifici Doloris, VI:25).
Suffering for Jesus
The first chapter in the Gospel of suffering is the deliberate decision to endure suffering for the sake of Jesus. In his public ministry, Jesus minced no words about the fact that anyone who participated in his ministry of building God's kingdom would face opposition of the worst kind: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34).
Fellowship with Jesus required a willingness to endure the severest form of capital punishment in first-century Palestine — crucifixion. This is what Jesus meant when he challenged would-be disciples to "take up your cross." And yet, persecution drew Jesus' disciples into greater conformity to their Lord, who also suffered for the sake of the Gospel. To suffer for Jesus, according to John Paul, was "particular proof of likeness to Christ and union with him." (Salvifici Doloris, VI:25).
According to Jesus, suffering for his sake is our Christian vocation as members of his body. But John Paul reminds us that, through this darkness, we discover not a dead end but a window to a life where the glory of the Resurrection awaits. The pope writes:
"To the prospect of the Kingdom of God is linked hope in that glory which has its beginning in the Cross of Christ. The Resurrection revealed this glory — eschatological glory. … Those who share in the sufferings of Christ are also called, through their own sufferings, to share in glory" (Salvifici Doloris, V:22).
Suffering with Jesus
While the Gospel of suffering allows us to transform our suffering into something good by enduring trials for the sake of Jesus, it also reveals a second way — suffering in union with Jesus, the great mystery of faith that we can join our suffering to Jesus' saving passion and death.
According to the pope, this sharing of suffering is possible only because Jesus engrafts us into his body — a reality that becomes actualized in a special way through our regeneration in Baptism and our reception of Jesus in the Eucharist. John Paul writes:
"… in the act of Baptism, which brings about a configuration with Christ, and then through his Sacrifice sacramentally through the Eucharist — the Church is continually being built up spiritually as the Body of Christ. In this Body, Christ wishes to be united with every individual, and in a special way he is united with those who suffer" (Salvifici Doloris, V:24).
The Body of Christ is no spiritual metaphor but is comprised of real living persons — Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, and the rest of us who have come to share in his life through grace. In Christ's body, heaven and earth meet, as the Son of God himself enters the soul of each one of us, renews us with his love, and knits us together into the fabric of his Church. It is within this communion of life and love that Jesus' suffering and ours become one.
God extends an invitation to transform our suffering into a catalyst of grace to all members of the Church. Whatever form our pain takes, we can lift it up into the Divine Potter's hands to shape and use for his good purposes.
Jesus transmutes our suffering into joy; the saving light he casts on the meaning of suffering creates a deep and abiding happiness in us as we come to know that we do not suffer in vain — we suffer in love.
Robert G. Schroeder holds a master's degree in theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary and has also studied theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of Dayton.
This is an edited excerpt from "John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering: Lessons from a Spiritual Master."