“Ask a Priest: What Does Suffering Mean to Catholics?”

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Q: Since the moment I began to have interest in the Catholic faith, one thing has always stood out more than the rest. That is, what does suffering mean to Catholics? I always seem to find that Catholics who talk about their faith have a fascination with suffering. I don’t want to suffer. What does suffering mean to you? Do I have to undergo voluntary depression, or do I just embrace the difficulties that come naturally? – N.B.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The Catholic belief in suffering is that it can have redemptive value if we accept it with a spirit of faith and offer it back to God.

That is, we can unite our suffering with the suffering of Jesus on the cross.

A key underlying idea here is that suffering can have a positive value. It need not be pointless.

Put another way: God allows suffering in our lives because he can bring something good out of it.

If borne well, suffering can become a means of growth in holiness. Borne badly, it can drag a person into despair.

Suffering that leads to a growth in holiness can be classified under the categories of active purification and passive purification.

Active purification is a result of the efforts of the soul (helped by the Holy Spirit) who seeks to purify itself from sins, vices, imperfections and unhealthy attachments that would keep it from attaining holiness and union with God.

When we seek active purification we are, to a degree, provoking suffering for the sake of something greater.

Passive purification is something that God permits in a mature soul to prepare it for exceptional grace. It has been compared to a surgeon who first renders a patient passive by anesthesia in order to more easily effect a cure.

A few points are worth clarifying here.

First, God’s original plan for the world didn’t involve suffering. Suffering came as a result of original sin. Jesus’ freely accepted suffering on the cross won our redemption and gave us a chance at salvation.

Second, all of us will suffer. It is part of the human condition. Catholics don’t have a monopoly on suffering.

And joining the Church doesn’t mean you have to “undergo voluntary depression.” We aren’t masochists.

Rather, your embrace of the faith should ideally include an acceptance the sufferings that come along, recognizing that they have value if they are accepted patiently and for love of God and others.

You can pray, “Lord, I accept X for the conversion of sinners.” Or, “I accept this suffering in reparation for my past sins.” Or, “Jesus, I embrace my cross for love of others, just as you embraced your cross for love of me and for my redemption.”

This approach can help us grasp the meaning of St. Paul’s words, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Many of us can recognize how suffering has helped us, how it brought our families and friends closer together, how it made us less self-centered and more compassionate toward others, how it humbled us.

Bishop Fulton Sheen famously stated, “There is nothing more tragic in all the world than wasted pain.” You might want to check out one of his 1950s broadcasts on suffering. And look at Peter Kreeft’s Making Sense Out of Suffering.

Be sure of this: Whether or not you enter the Church, you will have suffering. You don’t need to look for it; it will find you. The Church, however, can help you bear the suffering well.


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