Editor’s Note: As we go to press, we are mourning the death of Pope John Paul II. St. Francis of Assisi said, “Proclaim the Gospel always. If necessary use words.” Through his joyful, dignified acceptance of human frailty in his final days, Pope John Paul II taught us all a great lesson about the value of suffering.
Throughout my ministry I have focused on Jesus—his messages, the events of his life, his relationship to the world. Now more than ever I focus on his cross, his suffering, which was not only real but also redemptive and life-giving.
Jesus was human. He felt pain as we do. And in many ways he experienced pain and suffering more deeply than we will ever know. Yet in the face of it all, he transformed human suffering into something greater: an ability to walk with the afflicted and to empty himself so that his loving Father could work more fully through him.
As we look upon the cross and recall the specific ways by which people share in its mystery, there are many perspectives to be considered. I will highlight only one: The essential mystery of the cross is that it gives rise to a certain kind of loneliness, an inability to see clearly how things are unfolding, an inability to see that, ultimately, all things will work for our good, and that we are, indeed, not alone.
This sense of being abandoned, this extreme experience of loneliness, is evident in Jesus’ cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). If the Lord experienced pain and suffering, can we, as his disciples, expect anything less? No! Like Jesus, we too must expect pain. There is, however, a decisive difference between our pain as disciples and that experienced by those who are not the Lord’s disciples. The difference stems from the fact that, as disciples, we suffer in communion with the Lord. And that makes all the difference in the world! Nevertheless, even this communion does not totally extinguish the loneliness, the sense of abandonment, no more than it did for Jesus.
Our understanding of suffering—not merely its inevitability but also its purpose and redemptive value—greatly impacts our ministry of presence. As a matter of fact, suffering severely tests us in this regard, and the reason is quite simple. Whenever we are with people who suffer, it frequently becomes evident that there is very little we can do to help them other than be present to them, walk with them as the Lord walks with us. The reason this is so frustrating is that we like to be “fixers.” We want not only to control our own destiny but also that of others. So we are frustrated when all we can do for suffering persons is be present to them, pray with them—become, in effect, a silent sign of God’s presence and love.
And yet, the ability to offer that kind of prayerful response is the key that unlocks the mystery of suffering. For, in the final analysis, our participation in the paschal mystery—in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus—brings a certain freedom: the freedom to let go, to surrender ourselves to the living God, to place ourselves completely in his hands, knowing that ultimately he will win out! The more we cling to ourselves and others, the more we lose the true sense of our lives, the more we are impacted by the futility of it all. It’s precisely in letting go, in entering into complete union with the Lord, in letting him take over, that we discover our true selves. It’s in the act of abandonment that we experience redemption, that we find life, peace, and joy in the midst of physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering.
This is the lesson we must first learn from Jesus before we can teach it to others. We must let the mystery, the tranquility, and the purposefulness of Jesus’ suffering become part of our own life before we can become effective instruments in the hands of the Lord for the sake of others.
As Christians, if we are to love as Jesus loved, we must first come to terms with suffering. Like Jesus, we simply cannot be cool and detached from our fellow human beings. Our years of living as Christians will be years of suffering for and with other people. Like Jesus, we will love others only if we walk with them in the valley of darkness—the dark valley of sickness, the dark valley of moral dilemmas, the dark valley of oppressive structures and diminished rights.
Excerpt from The Gift of Peace by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin (Loyola Press 1997). Reprinted with permission of Loyola Press. To order copies of this book, call 1-800-621-1008 or visit www.loyolabooks.org