After concelebrating Mass with the Holy Father in his private chapel, a priest from Michigan had a brief opportunity to meet the Pope. The priest had a broken leg and stood on crutches as John Paul approached him in the receiving line of guests. He said to the Pope with a twinge of humor and self-pity, “I broke my leg. Can I please have your blessing?” John Paul replied, “Don’t waste your suffering.” The Holy Father raised his hand, blessed the priest, and then with an open palm, thumped the priest on the head (From St John Paul the Great: His Five Loves – by Jason Evert).
We too often waste our sufferings. They are the most powerful means to bring about our greatest good and the greatest good for others if we know how to accept them with trust and offer them with love to Christ. The idea of “offering it up” comes from the writings of Saint Paul, who exclaimed,
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
What Paul is asserting is that Jesus did not die so that humans would never have to suffer, but so that they would know how to suffer. The Passion of Christ removed the threat of eternal suffering while revealing the power of temporal suffering.
In becoming man, Christ redeemed all things human: human labor, human love, human suffering, and so on. Each part of man’s existence can take on a supernatural significance if only one has the eyes to see. In the case of suffering, through his Passion, death, and Resurrection, Jesus sufficiently merited all the graces necessary for the redemption of mankind. And if individuals suffer with him, they can participate in the distribution of these graces to mankind. It does not matter if the suffering is a bloody martyrdom, a toothache, unemployment, a rebellious child, or an alcoholic spouse. All things can be offered up as a prayer, and the intensity of suffering is not as important as the degree of love with which one embraces each cross.
Once a person discovers the meaning of suffering, it can be transformed into a powerful act of intercession. But the person who remains ignorant of its potential spiritual power could be compared to an illiterate person holding a winning lottery ticket. So much value, all gone to waste. To help the Church understand this, John Paul published a letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, entitled Salvifici Doloris, on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1984. In it, he explained how individuals can share in the suffering of Christ because he opened his suffering to all mankind: ". . . the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with
the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross. . . . In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering . . . Christ achieved the Redemption completely and to the very limits but at the same time he did not bring it to a close. . . . every form of suffering, given fresh life by the power of this Cross, should become no longer the weakness of man but the power of God."
By embracing the many crosses of daily life, a person not only sanctifies himself, but also releases a flood of graces for others. This is what Paul meant by completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the Church. The body of Christ is not merely a collection of Christians. It is a living instrument of redemption—an extension of Jesus Christ throughout time and space. He continues his salvific work through each member of his body. When a person understands this, he sees that the idea of “offering it up” is not just a theological reply to the question of human suffering, but rather a calling to participate in the salvation of the world. Cardinal Wojtyła explained, “To meet with suffering, that is a specific type of harvest.” He reminded the sick that they are not merely to be taken care of, but that they too can care for others through their suffering: “You can do very much by your prayer and your sacrifice, your suffering . . . you can obtain much from Jesus Christ for those who may not need physical help, but who often are in terrible need of spiritual help . . . Your role in the parish is not merely passive.” Through the example of Christ, one learns that not only should a person do good to those who suffer, but one can also do good by one’s suffering. Salvifici Dolores declared, “In this double aspect he has completely revealed the meaning of suffering.” When one understands the value of the cross and overcomes the sense that suffering is useless, the fruits of peace and joy are experienced. As John Paul explained, “The discovery of the salvific meaning of suffering in union with Christ transforms this depressing feeling.” Besides the writings of the saints, the Polish poet Cyprian Norwid also shaped the Holy Father’s appreciation for redemptive suffering. Commenting on Norwid, John Paul wrote, “It is significant that for Norwid crucifixes should not carry the figure of Christ, for in this way they could more clearly show the place where a Christian must be. Only those in whose interior Golgotha is lived each day can say: the Cross ‘has become the door.’” Norwid believed Christians should live “Not with the Cross of the Savior behind you, but with your own cross behind the Savior.” Although the powerful ones of the world assume they wield the greatest influence, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. In the Kingdom of God, the paraplegic is not less important than the business tycoon or celebrity, but in a certain sense, more so.
When human suffering is understood in its deepest meaning, it ceases to be something negative that is experienced in a passive manner. Rather, one becomes free to meet suffering with courage, seeing it as an opportunity for active and positive collaboration in the work of human redemption. Through God’s grace, it can be transformed into an irreplaceable service for souls, and is no longer wasted. For this reason, John Paul exclaimed, “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.”