Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput called pain the most democratic of human institutions CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Pain is a great mystery that can bring us closer to Christ

By  Charles Lewis
  • April 24, 2012

Like all Catholics, I know on an intellectual level that Christ suffered for our sins and for our salvation. That is a fairly simple but profound statement about what Christ did for us through His passion.  

But until recently I’ve been fortunate to never have to contemplate what that meant from a personal perspective. In other words, I never had to contemplate it in its painful, bloody reality and consider how a Christian should view personal suffering in light of Christ’s passion.

Then in December a minor back pain became a four-month ordeal that has not yet completely ended. At its worst, I was twisted into a knot of physical anguish that at points I thought would drive me insane, or kill me.

Several religious people counselled me to “give up the pain to Christ.” I nodded dumbly in agreement but actually had no idea what they meant. Did it mean ask God to take the pain away? Did it mean dedicate my pain to Christ? Did it mean regard my pain as a form of solidarity with my Christian brothers and sisters?

The last idea was in fact an important insight, highlighting what Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput meant when he called pain the most democratic of human institutions. But I was still not getting the concept of giving up my pain to Christ, even though I wanted badly to understand.

It was then suggested that I read John Paul II’s apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On Christian Suffering). Some smart and holy people said this slim document, written a few years after the attempted assassination of the pontiff, would help me make sense of my pain and to realize its deep spiritual meaning.

Unfortunately, the suggestion was made while I was still taking copious amounts of morphine and having trouble reading even the time on my clock radio. But once the drugs were out of my system, and my mind was clear, it was the first thing I read. Actually, I read it twice and will read it a third time.

This is how Pope John Paul II begins: “Declaring the power of salvific suffering, the Apostle Paul says: ‘In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is, the Church.’

“These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. For this reason St. Paul writes: ‘Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.’ The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help — just as it helped him — to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.”

Some theologian will probably dispute my conclusion but here is the simple message I think Blessed John Paul wanted to convey: Christ’s suffering was elevated to something holy because of what it accomplished. His suffering was not useless but salvific. But it did not end there. In that act of self-giving He changed the meaning of suffering for all.

“As a result of Christ’s salvific work, man exists on Earth with the hope of eternal life and holiness,” writes John Paul. “And even though the victory over sin and death achieved by Christ in His Cross and Resurrection does not abolish temporal suffering from human life, nor free from suffering the whole historical dimension of human existence, it nevertheless throws a new light upon this dimension and upon every suffering: the light of salvation. This is the light of the Gospel, that is, of the Good News.”

The apostolic letter (available on the Vatican’s web site, is not a call to give up, nor a call to be passive and do nothing to speed healing. But not all suffering can be healed quickly. And it is during those times, says John Paul, that pain can bring us closer to Christ.

I still have pain, though far less than before. There are still  days, frustrating days, when I wonder why I cannot escape it. And I am still a long way from fully absorbing the messages of Salvifici Doloris. But each day that I reflect on it the light shines a bit brighter. Even that bit of insight into a great mystery is reassuring.

(Lewis is the religion reporter for the National Post and the editor of its religion site, Holy Post. He can be followed on Twitter at @holycharlie.)

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