In his 1984 apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris, John Paul II wrote at length on this theme. Christ, the late pope argued, gave humanity the Gospel of Suffering:
Christ did not conceal from his listeners the need for suffering. He said very clearly: "If any man would come after me... let him take up his cross daily ''
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: "Follow me!". Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering!
The Master does not conceal the prospect of suffering from his disciples and followers. On the contrary, he reveals it with all frankness, indicating at the same time the supernatural assistance that will accompany them in the midst of persecutions and tribulations " for his name's sake."The differentiation between persecutions and tribulations is felicitous, for it serves to remind one that the daily cross is more likely to take the form of tribulation than persecution, but that such tribulation is nevertheless an opportunity to "make up for what is lacking in the suffering of Christ."
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.Anticipating his own physical deterioration in a way he could not have envisioned in 1984, John Paul goes on speak of suffering as bringing about the spiritual maturation of the one who suffers.
When this body is gravely ill, totally incapacitated, and the person is almost incapable of living and acting, all the more do interior maturity and spiritual greatness become evident, constituting a touching lesson to those who are healthy and normal.A few thoughts on this Feast of St. Stephen, whose faith matured in the face of persecution and whose sufferings led to St. Paul's conversion.
Several thoughts come to mind upon reading this reflection. Pain is the crucible in which our spiritual "silver" is refined. However, pain is still pain and to see one experience that pain is an agony in itself to those who love and care for that person and also for those administering to that person. Dorothy and I often go to bring communion to a local hospital and to conduct a liturgy of the word at a local convelescent home. In those settings we see much suffering and have come to realize (especially me, Dorothy already knew it) that Jesus is where the suffering is. While knowing that that is where Jesus is, is helpful, pain still must be endured and we pray constantly for healing, for patient endurance, for strength, not just for the one suffering but for the caregivers and loved ones as well.
It reminds me of the time when Dorothy's first husband was suffering from leukemia. He was a member of the parish council and I was the current president. So I called to ask if there was anything I could do for her or for her family. After she assured me that everything was taken care of I remarked that the "least that I could do was to pray for him." She responded, "No Walter. The MOST you can do is pray for him." I have never forgotten that spiritual lesson given to me by a person in deep pain and grieving over the incurable condition of her much loved husband.
The hard part of the Christian message..one the makes or breaks the faith of many..is the notion that Christ did not promise avoidance of, or immunity from individual suffering, but the power to trenscend and ultimately conquer. One hears often.."its not death that I am afraid of but pain and suffering". I would be a liar if I did not to admit to this fear myself...but I know that I have a Savior who already experienced what I so fear- physical agony, weakness, abandonment. The infinite in solidarity with the finite and the experience of "finiteness" in His Hour. He is present in all of this and to all of us in this way and we pray to sense his presence at our Hour and that His presence will be to effect. Gil..the significance of this all must be so real to you and your family over these past months. Our prayers are with you..each day. Peace be with you all.
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