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Uniting With Christ: An Analysis on the Catholic Understanding of Suffering

The Crucifixion

The following paper was submitted to Holy Apostles College for the Fall 2017 Semester; It was originally written on November 29th, 2017.

“In the eyes of the just God, before his judgment, those who share in the suffering of Christ become worthy of [his] Kingdom.”[1] This is what Pope John Paul II, and all of Christendom before his time, saw in the reality of human suffering. What His Holiness writes about here is nothing more than a parroting of something that the Church had understood since its inception two-thousand years before: that suffering is a means to the end that is obtaining eternity with God. More specifically, it is well-understood, as John Paul II demonstrates, that suffering is an unavoidable facet of human nature; the Church recognizes the nearly-necessary fact of suffering: “…in whatever form, suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from man's earthly existence,”[2] an existence in which we “would not have to suffer or die” had man “remained in the divine intimacy…”[3] All at once it is understood that evil and sin have borne suffering, just as goodness and virtue bear joy; but the Church goes even further in suggesting that suffering can also bear joy when it is ordered toward serving God.[4] Suffering, then, lends itself to the Christian as a means to grow closer to God in prayer, in life, and in death.

The Church would not be so mad as to suggest that suffering is something of a pleasantry—even less an intrinsic good, but rather, in keeping with her eternal understanding of all evils, she maintains that:

From the greatest moral evil ever committed—the rejection and murder of God’s only Son, caused by the sins of all men—God, by his grace that “abounded all the more,” brought the greatest of goods: the glorification of Christ and our redemption.[5]

It follows that it is the responsibility of the all men that the suffering we bear is used for the greater glory of God. To this end, Christendom is not the developer redemptive suffering; the notion of suffering was all but ignored in the Old Testament,[6] and the Old Testament God is nothing short of the New Testament God—both one-and-the-same; indeed, “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction, and opens their ear by adversity” (Job 36:15, RSV). But Christendom is the developer of salvific suffering, which is far more the point to which suffering ought to be addressed.

The Catechism expresses vividly the sort of value of suffering given by Christ’s example. In fact, the very “heart of catechesis” is Jesus Christ, “who suffered and died for us…”[7] The expressly crucial fact is that suffering is a requisite component of the Christian way. “Whoever is called to teach Christ…must suffer the loss of all things…in order to gain Christ and be found in him.”[8] Finding oneself within Christ is indeed the mission of every Christian—or at least it ought to be; and in light of that truth, Christian suffering, that is, human suffering, obtains its real purpose.

In clearly defining the ancient origins of suffering as a concept, and in giving rise to a valid reason for its leverage as a means of salvation, it is easier to grasp the efficacy of embracing it as a Christian, especially, as mentioned above, as a means of strengthening our bond with God in prayer, in life, and in death. As the stories of countless saints can attest, the proper bearing of the sufferings which we are given is perhaps the most rewarding of gifts that God allows us to use—or not use.

First, the Catholic Church has expressed the immense value in using our suffrage as a means to increase our prayer life. In fact, it is a well-understood observation that “there is a close correlation between suffering well and growth in prayer depth.”[9] The Catechism makes use of this relationship, noting that man can “enter deliberately into the divine plan by their actions, their prayers, and their sufferings.”[10] It might be noted that it is precisely because of our suffering that we are motivated to act, to pray, and to suffer well; and this may very well be James’ point when he writes, “[i]s any among you suffering? Let him pray” (James 5:13). But Jesus Christ remains the perfect example of prayerful suffering; he exemplifies the most perfect way of embracing something meant for evil, for the sake of turning it into a good, and he is a true model of how we ought to appeal to God about our most tender existence:

Jesus allows a glimpse of the boundless depth of his filial prayer, not only before he freely delivered himself up (“Abba … not my will, but yours.”), but even in his last words on the Cross, where prayer and the gift of self are but one: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[11]

Indeed the “gift of self” is the real prize of our suffering; not a prize for ourselves, but a prize given to God as an expression of our love.

Throughout our lives, prayer is a sustaining force which aids us in maintaining our Christian energy: “Prayer sustains a correct faith, fasting an innocent life, and almsgiving a kind disposition.”[12] Thusly, it is properly in the life of the Christian that his suffering is endured, and in the privacy of the Christian that his suffering is unloaded in prayer. By living our faith, and bearing our sufferings well, we meet Christ with reciprocity:

[b]y his incarnation, he, the Son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man. We are called only to become one with him, for he enables us as the members of his Body to share in what he lived for us in his flesh as our model.[13]

The life well-lived, then, is the life which reflects that of Christ’s. Not only in his “words and deeds,” but also in his “silences and sufferings,” which altogether call us to imitate him.[14] It is worth noting that the significance of salvation, although multi-faceted, has its end in suffering; not so much as a means of deterring the Christian from pain, but as a hope that nothing done in the name of God will be in vain: “All Jesus did, said, and suffered had for its aim restoring fallen man to his original vocation.”[15] It is in the same reciprocity that some Christians, even well-known ones, have even so much as brought on artificial suffering; a practice called mortification that entails a willful suffering of some kind.

This is by no means a new practice, and, if done correctly, it is a very holy one. The Catechism defends its use stating, “Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes.”[16] Pope St. John Paul II himself practiced mortification, which at times meant only that he would lay prostrate on the floor for entire nights, but at other times meant flagellation.[17]

Although mortification is not required of the faithful for salvation, suffering is so much a component of human life that it could loosely be considered a prerequisite for salvation. For as much suffering as we do on earth, there is still an even greater likelihood that we will suffer the last suffrage upon our deaths. This, of course, is a reference to the Catholic dogma of purgatory, the “final purification of the elect.”[18] Although some of us may evade the final sting of Purgatory—which is more appropriately akin to a burn than a sting—the soundness of this doctrine is a formulation of logic and reason, and rooted even more deeply in Scripture and Tradition.[19] Finally, because “Jesus…suffered the death that is part of the human condition,”[20] he has “transformed the curse of death into a blessing.”[21] For nothing of which God partakes can be cursed, and nothing that Christ does is in vain. In this final sense it is our Christian suffering which prepares us for, and indeed might deliver us from, that final pain which prepares our souls for admittance into the spotless paradise which we would otherwise never be worthy of obtaining.

In his saintly insight, Pope John Paul II writes:

[t]he redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished.[22]

John Paul’s message is clear: Christians are redeemed by merit of Christ’s ultimate and eternal sacrifice on the Cross, but we are not justified for salvation merely by hope; to “live in the truth,” we must live “in conformity with the Lord’s example,”[23] which ought to be mirrored not mostly, but entirely. It is not to be understood that the purpose of life is merely to suffer; after all, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (Ga 5:22-23), and in spite the afflictions that we do endure in life, Paul refreshingly reminds us of our duty in response to suffering:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too (2 Cor 1:3-5).

It is natural of men to fear suffering; Mrs. A.E. Knox puts it simply, “we dread to suffer.”[24] In a godless world, or a world of an impersonal one, it may be of common sense to say that suffering is useless; except this is not a godless world, and our God loves us dearly. So dearly that would subject himself to the torments which man himself created, and even then he would subject himself to the ultimate suffrage—to die a miserable death for his people. No, suffering is nothing to be feared; and when people stand in the face of anguish, they tend to come back stronger for it. To conclude, I suggest this final condolence on the prospect of suffrage:

…there is an example to which the afflicted may turn and gather might comfort. The Savior was made perfect through suffering. God himself wrought the world’s redemption through tears and death.[25]

[1] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter on the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering Salvifici Doloris (11 February 1984), §21.

[2] Salvici Doloris, §3.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997), 376.

[4] CCC, 2648.

[5] CCC, 312.

[6] There are several sources to which one can refer to understand the Old Testament view of suffering; for a snapshot of this understanding, See 1 Chron. 21:13; Job 11:16; Ps. 4:1, 18:16; Eccles. 7:2-6, RSV.

[7] CCC, 426.

[8] CCC, 428, internal quotations omitted.

[9] Thomas Dubay, Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel—On Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 15.

[10] CCC, 307.

[11] CCC, 2605.

[12] Leo the Great, Sermons, Thomas P. Halton (Ed.), Jane Patricia Freeland and Agnes Josephine Conway (Trans.) Vol. 93 (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 12.4.

[13] CCC 521, as quoted in: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger and Christoph Schonborn, Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 53.

[14] See CCC, 516.

[15] CCC, 518.

[16] CCC, 2015.

[17] Jimmy Akin, “STUNNER! Pope Practiced Self-Mortification,” at National Catholic Register (29 January 2010), at

[18] CCC, 1031.

[19] See 1 Cor 3:15, and 1 Pet 1:7; see also CCC, 1031.

[20] CCC, 1009.

[21] CCC, 1009. See also Rom 5:19-21.

[22] Salvici Doloris, §19.

[23] CCC, 2470.

[24] Mrs. A.E. Knox, “Suffering and Strength,” The Ladies’ repository: a monthly periodical, devoded to literature, arts, and religion 13, no. 5 (1853): 200, at Making of America Journals,;rgn=main;size=100;view=image

[25] Knox, “Suffering and Strength,” 201.

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