First, the concern over the spread of this disease is real; with so much unknown, caution and fear is understandable and expected. What I offer here are simply reflections on lessons we might glean from considering this epidemic in light God’s providence.
We are Creatures
When events like this happen (and speaking for myself, especially when I am sick), we come face to face with our own mortality: at times like this, it’s very evident that we are not in control. Of course, we should be exceedingly grateful for modern medicine and all the ways we’ve been able to offset the outbreak of disease and curb (as best we can) the destruction of natural disasters. That said, modern man is constantly in need of relearning this lesson: despite our technological wonders, we are not in control—we are creatures and must learn to trust in the providence of Almighty God. As much as I wish there were another way, hurricanes, tornadoes, and epidemics like COVID-19 powerfully remind us of that God is God and we are not.
Calls Forth a Greater Love
If love is the ultimate goal of human existence—that we most fully actualize and live out the truth of our human nature by making of our lives a total gift in love as Christ did on the Cross—then the presence of suffering often brings out the best in humanity. In moments like these, total strangers demonstrate a radical concern and love for others, very different than our ordinary daily interactions. As C.S. Lewis opined in the Screwtape Letters, one of the reasons why God created a “dangerous” world is that it brings moral issues to the fore, calling forth a moral seriousness and love that might not come about without such adversity. After all, persecution tends to unite people; they put aside their differences in the presence of a more pressing threat. Analogously, in the face of disease and natural disaster human solidarity reaches new heights—heights we typically don’t reach unless we’re tested in such a grueling way.
What we’re discussing here is one aspect of what St. John Paul II calls the “Gospel of Suffering,” which he draws from the parable of the Good Samaritan: the presence of suffering in others calls forth a greater love on our part as we seek to tend to their needs (see Salvifici Doloris).
This is the second prong in the “Gospel of Suffering,” according to St. John Paul II. On the one hand, many have had the experience of growth through suffering—spiritual lessons that we came to through the purifying fire of suffering. This is no doubt true: it’s often when we hit “rock bottom,” as it were, that we truly wake up to what is most important in life.
While this purifying aspect of suffering is a profound insight into the meaning and purpose of suffering, not all suffering fits this bill—not all suffering yields obvious and conspicuous spiritual and moral lessons and growth.
Thus, the second aspect, for St. John Paul II, of the “Gospel of Suffering” is not so much about our own purification, as it is the great mystery of redemptive suffering (see Salvifici Doloris). The following passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is one of the most profound expressions of this Christian mystery (emphasis mine):
“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.”Colossians 1:24
Of course, there is nothing “lacking” in Christ’s sufferings on the Cross; what remains is for the Paschal Mystery of Christ—his Cross and Resurrection—to be reproduced in and through each of us. The entire Christian story is about our entering into his death and Resurrection—this is the meaning of our baptism (see Romans 6:3-4), the Holy Eucharist, and the Spirit’s ongoing transformation of our lives (see Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20; John 3:30).
A Different Kind of Vocation
In baptism, we really and truly die with Christ (see CCC 1010); in the Mass, we enter ever more fully into Christ’s sacrifice and are offered up “in him, with him, and through him” to the Father, making the Mass the sacrifice of the entire Body of Christ, head and members. The entire Christian mystery is about the Holy Spirit reproducing the mystery of Christ, his death and resurrection, in and through each of us.
Here is where the mystery of suffering will always have a place: in uniting our suffering (even the smallest of sufferings) to Jesus on the Cross, we can participate in the redemption of the world. In this respect, every Catholic continues to have a mission until their dying breath. Often, we overlook the elderly in this way—we talk about each person having a vocation, a divine mission, and we tend to speak in terms of marriage, religious life, evangelization, and social outreach, and so on. But what about the person on their death bed? What about the person who is house-ridden—is their mission now totally in the rear view mirror?
In light of the full truth of the gospel, we always have a mission. The offering of our sacrifices, big or small, in union with Christ constitutes a holy sacrifice to the Father in the Spirit. In uniting ourselves to Jesus on the Cross, we share in his redemptive work: Who will be saved because of the graces God pours forth in response to our unseen acts of sacrifice? Perhaps, this may be our finest hour—we may do more good for the salvation of others by offering up our suffering in our final days than we did during our earthly apostolic endeavors. This is not to take away from the importance of our apostolates—it’s only to put our final moments in their full theological perspective.
Suffering: Avoid or Embrace?
One of St. John Paul II’s mentors, Jan Tyranowski (who is now Servant of God), captures this well. The following is an account of his final weeks in 1947, drawn from my article on him in the February 2019 Word Among Us:
“Wojtyla was in Rome completing a doctorate when Tyranowski became very ill, first with tuberculosis and then a serious infection. ‘Are you having injections for the pain?’ Malinski, now a seminarian, asked. ‘As long as I can stand it, I don’t want them,’ Tyranowski responded.
In and through his patient suffering (which earned him the nickname “Job” from Wojtyla) Tyranowski believed he was doing something of eternal worth. “I am lying here doing nothing, but I still want to work for the salvation of the world, as you people are doing at the seminary,” he said, “so I am offering up my pain for the benefit of all those in need.”
Such a course of action is indeed heroic and not necessarily the calling for everyone (i.e., it is not wrong to take pain medication), as the late pope writes here:
“While praise may be due to the person who voluntarily accepts suffering by forgoing treatment with painkillers in order to remain fully lucid and, if a believer, to share consciously in the Lord’s Passion, such ‘heroic’ behavior cannot be considered the duty of everyone. Pius XII affirmed that it is licit to relieve pain by narcotics, even when the result is decreased consciousness and a shortening of life.”Evangelium Vitae, 65
That said, one aspect of the culture of death identified by John Paul II is precisely the view that sees suffering as inherently meaningless, as an evil to be avoided at all costs. He writes (emphasis mine):
“All this is aggravated by a cultural climate which fails to perceive any meaning or value in suffering, but rather considers suffering the epitome of evil, to be eliminated at all costs.”Evangelium Vitae, 15
He continues, noting the gap between a thorough-going secular worldview and a truly Christian one:
“The values of being are replaced by those of having. The only goal which counts is the pursuit of one’s own material well-being. The so-called ‘quality of life’ is interpreted primarily or exclusively as economic efficiency, inordinate consumerism, physical beauty and pleasure, to the neglect of the more profound dimensions—interpersonal, spiritual and religious—of existence…. In such a context suffering … is rejected as useless, indeed opposed as an evil, always and in every way to be avoided.”Evangelium Vitae, 23
This Life Isn’t the End
Coming to grips with our ultimate end—in eternity—is the first and most essential step in grappling with the meaning of suffering. Engaging the full truth of reality, seeing the world as God sees it, is the first step toward making sense of what would otherwise be insoluble from our own temporal and earthly vantage point alone.
This life is not the end and therefore death is truly a door to everlasting life.
This perspective gives us an unflinching hope and relentless peace that the world cannot give. In the words of John Paul II:
“The certainty of future immortality and hope in the promised resurrection cast new light on the mystery of suffering and death, and fill the believer with an extraordinary capacity to trust fully in the plan of God.”Evangelium Vitae, 67
John Paul II brings our first and final consideration together when he comments on Romans 14:7–8 (“None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord”). The truth of this passage is a reminder that we are creatures who are not in full possession of our own destiny (and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise), and that we are destined for what “no eye has seen, nor ear heard (1 Corinthians 2:9)—indeed, our true citizenship is in heaven (see Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 13:14).
John Paul II writes (emphases mine):
“Dying to the Lord means experiencing one’s death as the supreme act of obedience to the Father (cf. Phil 2:8), being ready to meet death at the ‘hour’ willed and chosen by him, which can only mean when one’s earthly pilgrimage is completed…. Living to the Lord also means recognizing that suffering, while still an evil and a trial in itself, can always become a source of good…. In this way, the person who lives his suffering in the Lord grows more fully conformed to him and more closely associated with his redemptive work on behalf of the Church and humanity.”Evangelium Vitae, 67
None of this makes dealing with suffering easy; but it might make it possible. God loves us and his ways are not our ways. In eternity, we will see things in a very different light than we do right now. We must always keep this truth before our minds and hearts, always trusting in him and working for the salvation of the world in whatever way he calls us to.
What difference does a supernatural outlook make in the presence of suffering? How did it help St. Paul persevere with such supernatural courage in the face of relentless persecution?
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Dr. Andrew Swafford is associate professor of theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension, and host of the Bible study Romans: The Gospel of Salvation (and author of the companion book), also by Ascension. Andrew is author of Nature and Grace, John Paul II to Aristotle and Back Again, and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in sacred theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas. Follow him on Twitter: @andrew_swafford.