The Power of the Pope’s Suffering
“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.”
Pope John Paul II wrote the words above in 1984, three years after an attempt on his life by an assassin. His papacy had been, for those of us non-Catholics, still largely defined by his skiing, hiking, and seemingly continuous travel. Today, the aging Pope’s struggle with his health has given a very different image of the head of the Roman Catholic Church.
The problem is that I have found the Pope’s unwillingness to step down embarrassing. I don’t understand the embarrassment myself, so I certainly can’t explain to you why I have had a problem with John Paul’s steadfast determination to remain as Pope even as his health so obviously deteriorates. And yet, there it is. I see the aged leader so clearly struggling with Parkinson-like symptoms and I wish he would remove himself from the public stage.
But John Paul II shows no desire to end his 26-year reign as the spiritual head of a billion Christians around the world. At every public appearance, he slumps more and leans harder on the crucifix-topped staff.
I first asked, “Why is he so stubborn? What is the Pope afraid of?” But even those questions cause me to question myself, “Why do I care? What am I afraid of?”
The answer is painful. For I find in my concerns about John Paul II, an unchristian desire to relegate pain, suffering and death to the private sphere alone. Don’t I believe what I preach? Doesn’t Christianity actually have something meaningful to say about the suffering we humans face.
Pope John Paul II thought so when he wrote his 1984 paper on the meaning of human suffering. In that paper, he wrote of Jesus, “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.’”
John Paul was, of course, right. Not only does the Bible show that Jesus suffered, but scripture goes further than never promising that we won’t suffer. Scripture tells us that we will suffer and that God is present with us in our sufferings. As Paul writes to the Romans, it is through our sufferings that we will find our way to hope.
After all, we Christians don’t have better lives, cooler cars and nicer houses than those who don’t share our faith. Furthermore, we Christians don’t have easier lives, more fulfilling jobs, and perfect children or parents. If we are honest, we Christians don’t always have the peace we long for either.
What we Christians have is a relationship with the God who is working to redeem our world one life at a time. What we have is the knowledge that everything we now see and experience is not all there is. What we Christians have is hope.
Pope John Paul II put it this way, “As a result of Christ's salvific work, man exists on earth with the hope of eternal life and holiness.” The Pope noted that the saving work of Jesus came in the midst of great suffering on the cross. It is to the cross we must go to understand our own suffering.
Start at the cross and you see the love of God in its fullness. Jesus, the miracle worker, could have prevented his own death. But God had become human and would not change the rules. If a human who spoke out for love and justice would be put to death, then God would be put to death. Jesus loved us all so much, that he would not give up on that love no matter what the cost. The cost became torture and death and Jesus still loved us and refused to give up on that love.
Do you ever wonder why God allows suffering? If we are free to make choices that have consequences, then pain and suffering are possible. God allows suffering because suffering is the price of freedom. There can be no free will without suffering. But that is not the whole answer. God did not leave us alone to suffer along with our freedom. God was also willing to enter that world and live and suffer as one of us.
Knowing that Jesus could and did suffer shows that God is willing to be with you in your pain, your hurt, and your loss. Jesus didn’t do this for you because you are perfect. You know that’s not true and so does he. Jesus suffered out of the love he had for us regardless of our imperfections.
That’s why Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” If Jesus had waited until we got our acts together before he died for us, he would still be waiting. Jesus suffered and died for us even though we didn’t deserve that kind of love.
John Paul wrote, “Love is…the fullest source of the answer to the question of the meaning of suffering.” The love of God shown on the cross transforms our understanding of suffering. We don’t suffer as people despised by God feeling God’s wrath as we are wracked with physical or mental pain. Instead in our suffering, we can be seen to be loved by God fully, even in the midst of pain—pain that God wants to redeem. There is no shame in suffering after all.
After pausing to consider the source of my embarrassment at the Pope’s very public struggle with health, I see that despite my theological views, I still have trouble seeing power in powerlessness. Nonetheless, weakness is at the very heart of the Gospel. Jesus showed his real power in being willing to hang on the cross in public shame and dishonor.
John Paul shows his real spiritual force of will each time he resumes his public duties. At every appearance he literally risks his life, as a fall would have tragic consequences. And yet, this Christian leader who has worked so forcefully to make a stand on behalf of all life is still willing to make that stand when it comes with painful consequences to his own person.
Whether one agrees or disagrees with John Paul’s theological views, one has to admire the way he lives out his faith. There must be something to that quote with which I began this column. He wrote then, “in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace.” I think now as health fails him, the Pope must be experiencing some of power of his own suffering.
We are all understudies for the role of the one whose health is failing and for whom death is an immanent threat. Barring some tragic accident in the meantime, you and I will both face issues of fading health. You and I will come to our own Gethsemane as we face our mortality through suffering. I pray that we may show strength in the midst of our own weakness, that John Paul II shows now.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526