Seventeen years ago this May, I had the extraordinary blessing of meeting one of my heroes: Pope St. John Paul II. I did not meet the young pope who had once famously escaped the Vatican in disguise to enjoy a day of skiing. Rather, this was the much older man whose body was being ravaged by Parkinson’s Disease. As I stood in line inching forward to meet him, I noticed the muscles in his face were so weakened that saliva was pooling by his feet. I was deeply moved, that this great man was giving himself to the Church and the world even in his weakness and in the affliction of his disease. Whereas most of us tend to isolate ourselves in our suffering, here was a saint who continued to be “for others” until the very end.
What convictions formed how he lived his suffering in those final years of his pontificate?
He understood the experience of suffering to be a mysterious opportunity that God offers to every person: the chance to associate ourselves with his saving work of redemption. John Paul put it this way: “[every person] is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” Through the unique circumstances of our own particular travails great and small, if we so choose we may join ourselves to the suffering embraced by Christ on the Cross. By virtue of our union with the grace of Suffering Love, this “work” of ours can be a catalyst for immeasurable good in the world. Only two dispositions are needed. The experience with suffering must, on some level, be accepted (even if not originally willed) and it must be offered to God as a sacrificial gift. The fathers of Vatican II describe well this sacrificial offering: "For their work, prayers and apostolic endeavors, their ordinary married and family life, their daily labor, their mental and physical relaxation, if carried out in the Spirit, and even the hardships of life if patiently borne-all of these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Pt 2:5). During the celebration of the Eucharist these sacrifices are most lovingly offered to the Father along with the Lord's body.”
John Paul II believed that the sick and the suffering have a mission only they can accomplish for the world. They are not excused from cooperating with God in the redemption of the world. Rather, “Even the sick are sent forth as laborers into the Lord's vineyard: the weight that wearies the body's members and dissipates the soul's serenity is far from dispensing a person from working in the vineyard. Instead the sick are called to live their human and Christian vocation and to participate in the growth of the Kingdom of God in a new and even more valuable manner.” I won’t forget stopping in South Bend, Indiana several years ago to visit dear friends. I had recently herniated a disc in my back and was under some duress. After talking awhile with his family, Bobby, the three-time cancer survivor of the house, walked me to my car and with earnestness told me: “don’t let your suffering go to waste!”
I think frequently of my mother who has been afflicted with serious medical issues for three decades. She knows what it means to redemptively use it, by uniting her experience with the Cross of Christ. I am convinced that when she (and my Dad who has accompanied her in this) are on the other side of the veil, they will see how much good this sacrifice has accomplished for the world. Indeed, in a simple and quiet way, my mother and so many who learn the art of redemptive suffering are (in the words of John Paul II) helping “teach the whole world what love is.”
Of course, this is precisely what the pope did in his final days. From one biographer: “His suffering was his witness. Every other leader in the world stands straight and tall…These public souls are acutely conscious of their public presentation. But John Paul came out broken and bent, as broken as the Christ on the cross he carried on his crozier.”
St. John Paul II taught about suffering’s redemptive value, and then he lived it. May we who also form others in the Christian life be inspired by him to do the same.
Dr. James Pauley is Professor of Theology and Catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville and author of the book Liturgical Catechesis in the 21st Century: A School of Discipleship (Liturgy Training Publications, 2017).
 John Paul II, Salvici Doloris, art. 19.
 Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, art. 34 (emphasis mine).
 John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, art. 53.
 Peggy Noonan, John Paul the Great: Remembering a Spiritual Father (NY: Viking Penguin, 2005), 9-10.