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The meaning of suffering in the light of Christ's Passion

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on Jesus Christ
General Audience, Wednesday 9 November 1988 - in Italian & Spanish  

""If a grain of wheat...dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24).

1. The redemption carried out by Christ at the price of his passion and death on the cross is a decisive event in human history, not only because it fulfills the supreme divine plan of justice and mercy, but also because it gave new meaning to the problem of suffering. No problem has weighed more heavily on the human family, especially in its relationship with God. We know that the value of human existence is conditioned by the solution of the problem of suffering. To a certain extent it coincides with the problem of evil, whose presence in the world is so difficult to accept.

The cross of Christ - the passion - throws a completely new light on this problem by conferring another meaning on human suffering in general.

2. In the Old Testament suffering was considered as a penalty inflicted on man for his sins by a just God. However, within this perspective, based on an initial divine revelation, it was difficult to explain the suffering of the innocent. This is an acute problem, the classic example of which is found in the case of Job. It must be added, however, that already in the Book of Isaiah the problem is seen in a new light. The figure of the servant of Yahweh seems to constitute a particularly significant and effective preparation in relation to the paschal mystery, in the center of which those who suffer in all times and peoples find their place alongside the "man of sorrows" Christ.

The Christ who suffers is, in the words of a modern poet, "the Holy One who suffers," the innocent one who suffers. This is so because his suffering has a much greater intensity compared with that of all other human beings, even of all the Jobs, that is to say, of all those who suffer without fault of their own. Christ is the only one truly without sin, and who, moreover, could not sin.

He is therefore the one - the only one - who absolutely did not merit suffering. Yet he is also the one who accepted it in the fullest and most resolute way, accepted it voluntarily and with love. This indicates his desire, his interior urge, as it were, to drink to the dregs the cup of suffering (cf. Jn 18:11), and this "for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world," as the Apostle John explains (1 Jn 2:2). In this desire, communicated to a soul without guilt, is found the essence of the redemption of the world by means of the cross. The redemptive power of suffering is in love.

3. And hence, through the work of Christ, the meaning of suffering changes radically. It no longer suffices to see in it a punishment for sin. One must discern in it the redemptive, salvific power of love. The evil of suffering, in the mystery of Christ's redemption, is overcome and in every case transformed. It becomes a force of liberation from evil, for the victory of the good. All human sufferings, united to that of Christ, complete "what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body" (cf. Col 1:24). The body is the Church as the universal community of salvation.

4. In what is known as his pre-paschal teaching, Jesus made it known on more than one occasion that the concept of suffering, understood exclusively as a punishment for sin, is insufficient and even incorrect. Thus when some told him of the Galileans "whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices," Jesus inquired, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus?... Or those eighteen upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who dwelt in Jerusalem?" (Lk 13:1-2, 4). Here Jesus clearly called in question a view that was widely and commonly accepted at the time. He made it understood that the misfortune that brings the suffering cannot be understood exclusively as a punishment for personal sins. "No, I tell you," Jesus declared, and then added, "But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Lk 13:3-4). In the context, a comparison of these words with those that went before makes it evident that Jesus intended to emphasize the necessity of avoiding sin, because that is the real evil, the evil in itself. Given the solidarity that binds human beings among themselves, sin is the ultimate root of all suffering. It does not suffice to avoid sin merely through fear of the punishment that the sinner may incur. One must truly be converted to the good, so that the law of solidarity can reverse its effectiveness and develop, through communion with Christ's suffering, a positive influence on the other members of the human family.

5. This is the meaning of Jesus' words when he healed the man born blind. The disciples asked him: "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (Jn 9:1-3). By giving sight to the blind man, Jesus made known the works of God which were to be revealed in that disabled man, to the advantage of himself and of all those who should come to know of the event. The miraculous healing of the blind man was a sign which led him to believe in Christ and introduced into the mind of others a seed of disquiet (cf. Jn 9:16). The profession of faith of the blind man who had received his sight manifested the essential "work of God," the gift of salvation which he received together with the gift of sight. "Do you believe in the Son of Man?... Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?...You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.... Lord, I believe" (Jn 9:35-38).

6. Against the background of this event we perceive in the light of the cross some aspects of the truth about suffering. A judgment that views suffering exclusively as a punishment of sin runs counter to love for man. This had appeared already in the case of Job's "comforters" who accuse him with arguments based on a conception of justice devoid of any opening to love (cf. Job 4 ff.). One sees it still better in the case of the man born blind: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (Jn 9:2). It is like pointing a finger at someone. It is a judgment which passes from suffering seen as a physical torment, to that understood as a punishment for sin. Someone must have sinned, either the man in question or his parents. It is a moral imputation: he suffers, therefore he must have been guilty.

To put an end to this petty and unjust way of thinking, it was necessary to reveal in its essential profundity the mystery of the suffering of the innocent one, the holy one, the man of sorrows! Ever since Christ chose the cross and died on Golgotha, all who suffer, especially those who suffer without fault, can come face to face with the "holy one who suffers." They can find in his passion the complete truth about suffering, its full meaning and its importance.

7. In the light of this truth, all those who suffer can feel called to share in the work of redemption accomplished by means of the cross. To share in the cross of Christ means to believe in the saving power of the sacrifice which every believer can offer together with the Redeemer. Suffering then casts off the mantle of absurdity which seems to cover it. It acquires a profound dimension and reveals its creative meaning and value. It could then be said that it changes the scenario of existence, from which the destructive power of evil is ever farther removed, precisely because suffering bears its copious fruits. Jesus himself revealed and promised that to us when he said, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). From the cross to glory!

8. It is necessary with the help of the Gospel to make evident another aspect of the truth about suffering. Matthew tells us that "Jesus went about...preaching the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity" (Mt 9:35). Luke in his turn tells us that when Jesus was questioned about the true meaning of the commandment of love, he replied with the parable of the good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:30-37). From these texts it follows that, according to Jesus, suffering should impel in a special way to love of neighbor and to the commitment of rendering him all necessary services. Such a love and such services, carried out in every way possible, constitute a fundamental moral value which accompanies suffering. When speaking of the last judgment, Jesus set out with particular clarity the idea that every work of love performed on behalf of a suffering person is directed to the Redeemer himself: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me" (Mt 25:35-36). The whole Christian ethic of service, even social service, is based on these words, as well as the definitive turning to account of suffering accepted in the light of the cross.

Could not one find here the answer which humanity awaits today? It can be received only from Christ crucified, the holy one who suffers. He can penetrate the heart of the most painful human problems, because he already stands beside all who suffer and who ask him for an awakening of new hope.


After the Catechesis, Pope John Paul II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai fedeli di espressione francese 

Chers Frères et Sœurs,

JE REMERCIE TOUS les pèlerins de langue française pour leur présence comme pour leur prière à mes intentions. Au terme de cette audience, je serai heureux de les bénir ainsi que leurs familles et leurs amis. 

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese 

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

IT IS A JOY to welcome all the priests and religious who are present today, in particular che group of Sisters of the Little Company of Mary and the members of the General Chapter of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of Tutzing. The public witness which you bear tho the Gospel of Christ is a great blessing for the Church and for the world. It is a vital part of the Churchs mission of evangelization. May the Lord strengthen you and increase your joy as you continue to serve him faithfully.

* * *

MY SPECIAL GREETINGS go to the pilgrimage from Honolulu and in particular to the Choir from the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace. I am also happy to greet the Delegates from the House of Representatives of the Philippines.

* * *

I WELCOME, too, the members of the American Lebanese League. I assure you that I share your concern for the welfare of Lebanon, for the end to violence and strife among the different groups who live there and for a negotiated settlement that will bring about true justice and peace. I pray that people of all faiths will come to see one another as brothers and sisters in the human family, sons and daughters of the one God and Father of all.

And to all English-speaking visitors I extend a most cordial welcome, especially to those from England, Denmark, Malawi, the Philippines, Korea and the United States.

My God fill your hearts whith his peace and joy.

Ai numerosi fedeli tedeschi 

Liebe Brüder und Schwestern!

MIT DIESER KURZEN Betrachtung grüße ich euch, liebe Brüder und Schwestern: jeden einzelnen sowie alle genannten und ungenannten Gruppen. Möge euch diese Begegnung mit so vielen Gläubigen aus aller Welt in eurer Liebe zu Christus und zu seiner Kirche stärken und ermutigen. Das erbitte ich euch und allen, die euch verbunden sind, mit meinem besonderen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai fedeli di lingua spagnola

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

DESEO AHORA presentar mi más cordial saludo a todas las personas, familias y peregrinaciones procedentes de los diversos Países de América Latina y de España.

En particular, saludo al grupo de Religiosas de María Inmaculada, que están haciendo en Roma un curso de renovación, y las aliento a un ilusionado dinamismo apostólico, que encuentre en Cristo su fuente y motivo de alegría. 

* * * 

SALUDO IGUALMENTE al grupo de muchachos del “Hogar del Niño”, de Chinandega, Nicaragua. Llevad con vosotros el saludo afectuoso del Papa a todos los niños y niñas de vuestro país; el cual acompaño con mi oración para que el Señor infunda deseos de paz y entendimiento entre todos los nicaragüenses.

Complacido imparto a todos mi Bendición Apostólica. 

Ai connazionali polacchi 

SERDECZNIE WITAM pielgrzymów z Polski, w szczególności Księży Biskupów Ordynariuszy z Pelplina i z Gdańska, Księdza Biskupa pomocniczego z Kielc; witam pielgrzymkę duszpasterzy, instruktorów i specjalistów od spraw życia rodzinnego, zorganizowaną przez Komisję Episkopatu Polski do spraw Rodzin z okazji dwudziestej rocznicy encykliki “Humanae Vitae”; witam pielgrzymów z parafii św. Marii Magdaleny z Warszawy z parafii św. Jana Chrzciciela, Brenna koło Skoczowa; pielgrzymów z diecezji kieleckiej; z parafii św. Wojciecha w Koninie; rolników z diecezji kieleckiej; lekarzy i inteligencję diecezij gdańskiej; pielgrzymów z parafii Matki Bożej Wspomoźoia Wiernych z Miastka; z parafii św. Katarzyny z Bytowa, diecezja koszalińsko-kołobrzeska; pielgrcymkę rolników z diecezji gorzowskiej; pielgrzymkę duszpasterstwa rodzin z Poznania; młodych pracowników budowlanych, przebywających we Włoszech na zaproszenie Stowarzyszenia Konstruktorów; z Wadowic grupę PTTK; z Rzeszowa i z Krakowa grupę kolejarzy; prócz tego uczestników grupę turystycznych Turysta oraz turystów z Gdańska. 

Ai pellegrini italiani 

VADA ORA un particolare saluto ai pellegrini di lingua italiana presenti all’Udienza. Desidero ricordare in special modo le Religiose della Congregazione delle Suore della Provvidenza, convenute a Roma per un corso di formazione permanente.

Questa sosta nella Città degli Apostoli Pietro e Paolo - centro della comunione cattolica, come la Festività odierna della Dedicazione della Basilica Lateranense sottolinea - valga ad approfondire in voi, care Sorelle, e in tutti i presenti il senso vivo dell’universalità ed unità della Chiesa, spingendovi ad un rinnovato proposito di adesione senza riserve alla fede trasmessa dagli Apostoli e qui illustrata dalla testimonianza di tanti Martiri e Santi. A tutti la mia Benedizione. 

Ai giovani, agli ammalati, agli sposi novelli 

MI RIVOLGO ora, ai giovani, agli sposi novelli e agli ammalati presenti, tra i quali un gruppo di laringectoniffiti dell’Ospedale di Lucca. A questi soprattutto assicuro la mia preghiera e la mia benevolenza.

Oggi è il giorno in cui ricordiamo la Festività Liturgica della Dedicazione della Basilica di S. Giovanni in Laterano cattedrale di Roma, alla quale sono spiritualmente unite le cattedrali di tutte le diocesi; desidero perciò invitarvi a sentirvi sempre parte viva delle vostre comunità cristiane, mantenendo sempre profondi vincoli di comunione con i Sacerdoti delle vostre Chiese e favorendo l’unione delle vostre diocesi con il Vescovo di Roma. A tale scopo il Signore vi aiuti con la sua grazia e vi conceda i doni richiesti dal vostro stato di vita e dalle situazioni in cui siete immersi. Vi benedico di cuore.

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