Human beings naturally recoil at the prospect of pain and suffering.
When a sharp object pokes us, we instinctively pull away. When the
unpleasant neighbor comes up on caller ID, we recoil from answering the
phone. Our initial response is to avoid noxious stimuli and pain,
similar to most animals.
Yet when dealing with
painful or unpleasant situations, we can also respond deliberately and
in ways that radically differentiate us from the rest of the animal
We can choose, for example, to confront
and endure our pain for higher reasons. We know that a needle will
hurt, but we decide to hold our arm still when getting an injection
because our powers of reason tell us it will improve our health. We
know the pain of talking to our difficult neighbor, but we figure that
we should rise to the challenge and do it anyway, attempting to build
peace in the neighborhood.
We can also approach
our pain and suffering in unreasonable ways, driven by worry and fear.
When we suffer from a difficult relationship, we can turn to drugs,
alcohol or binge-eating. When we suffer from the thought of continuing
a pregnancy, we can terminate it by taking the life of our son or
daughter by abortion. When we suffer from the pain of cancer, we can
short-circuit everything by physician-assisted suicide.
we decide to respond to suffering, whether rationally or irrationally,
is one of the most important human choices we make. For many in our
society, suffering has become a singular evil to be avoided at all
costs, leading to many irrational and destructive decisions.
physical pain is widespread in the animal world, the real difference
for human beings is that we know we are suffering and we wonder why;
and we suffer in an even deeper way if we fail to find a satisfactory
answer. We need to know whether our suffering has meaning. From our
hospital bed or wheelchair, we can hardly avoid the piercing question
of “why,” as grave sickness and weakness make us feel useless and even
burdensome to others. In the final analysis, however, no suffering is
“useless,” though a great deal of suffering is lost or wasted because
it is rejected by us, and we fail to accept its deeper meaning. Pope
John Paul II often remarked that the answer to the question of the
meaning of suffering has been given by God to man in the Cross of Jesus
In the field of Catholic healthcare, the
question of suffering arises with regularity, and while the dedicated
practice of medicine strives to lessen suffering and pain, it can never
completely eliminate it. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in an
important document called the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,
reminds us that “patients experiencing suffering that cannot be
alleviated should be helped to appreciate the Christian understanding
of redemptive suffering.”
The very concept of
“redemptive suffering” suggests that there is much more to human
suffering than meets the eye, and that it is not simply an unmitigated
evil from which we should instinctively flee. Rather, it is a
mysterious force that can mold us in important ways and mature us, a
force we ought to learn to work with and accept as part of our human
journey and destiny.
Each of us, in our pain and
suffering, can become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.
As children, we may have been taught those famous three words by our
parents when pain and suffering would come our way: “Offer it up!”
Those simple words served to remind us how our sufferings can benefit
not only ourselves, but those around us in the mystery of our human
communion with them. When we are immobilized in our hospital bed, we
become like Christ, immobilized on the wood of the Cross, and powerful
redemptive moments open before us, if we accept and embrace our own
situation in union with Him.
Because of the
personal love of the Lord towards us, we can in fact make a very real
addition to His plan of salvation by uniting our sufferings to His
saving Cross, just as a little child can make a very real addition to
the construction of her mother's cake when she lovingly allows her to
add the eggs, flour, and salt. While the mother could do it all
unaided, the child’s addition is real and meaningful, as the love of
the mother meets the cooperation of the child to create something new
and wonderful. In the same way, God permits our sufferings, offered up,
to make an indelible mark in His work of Salvation. This transformation
of the “uselessness” of our suffering into something profoundly
meaningful serves as a source of spritual joy to those who enter into
it. For those who are in Christ, suffering and death represent the
birth pangs of a new and redeemed creation. Our sufferings, while never
desirable in themselves, always point towards transcendent
possibilities when we do not flee from them in fear.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience
from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the
diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at
The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See