By 1941, Karol Wojtyla had suffered the loss of all of his immediate family, including his mother, brother and father. His sister died before he was born.
“At 20, I had already lost all the people I loved,” the future Blessed Pope John Paul II was quoted as saying.
He was living in the midst of the Nazi German occupation of his native Poland, following his father’s death, when the call to the priesthood became increasingly clear. He began his studies at the underground seminary in Krakow, certain of God’s will for his life.
Our great heroes of faith, the saints, lived lives that inspire and motivate us to reach a deeper spiritual union with God. In reading through the pages of their biographies, a common theme seems to echo in their lives: They suffered.
Many suffered the loss of their mothers in childhood. In addition to John Paul II, there were Sts. Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, Philip Neri, Catherine Labouré, Elizabeth Ann Seton, Dymphna, Gemma Galgani, Gabriel of the Sorrows and Andre Bessette, who lost both parents by age 12.
At age 9, young Catherine Labouré put her arms around a statue of Our Lady and told her that she would be her mother.
Fifteen years later, in 1830, Mary appeared to her in the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity in Rue de Bac in Paris and presented her with the Miraculous Medal.
In addition to suffering loss of beloved family, the saints often suffered health problems, disappointments, rejection and criticism by superiors. They carried the cross, and through the cross, they reached perfection. The cross was their path to true love, communion with God and abandonment of their own will to the will of the Father.
To share in redemptive suffering humbly allowed them the opportunity to totally rely on God, who never disappoints.
“The earmark of a saint is great suffering, along with great joy. They travel together. If you just suffer, how boring, if all you are is a suffering complainer,” explained Father Joseph Clark, of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., in residence at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Annandale, Va.
“Some great saints have suffered greatly, and they didn’t complain to anyone. In fact, they sought greater suffering because they saw the supernatural use. Apart from the egoistic conclusion that suffering is done for the sake of the sufferer to have his communion with God, there is also the sense that when you have that communion with God through suffering, those acts and things you do in embracing your cross have a redemptive value for the community also.”
The saints recognize suffering’s higher purpose.
“God is stimulating the human person to that communion with him through a condition which the inadequacy of life and the privations of life serve now as a catalyst toward a transcendent spiritual move to the divine,” said Father Clark. “If you didn’t suffer, you would think this was heaven on earth.”
The great mystic St. John of the Cross wrote of the positive effects of suffering on the soul, which he experienced firsthand while imprisoned in Toledo, Spain, in 1577. From his 6-foot-by-10-foot cell, he overcame physical suffering and reached a higher level of union with God, through mystical illumination.
“Do not allow yourselves to be overly saddened by the unfortunate accidents of this world,” he wrote. “You are not aware of the benefits they bring and by what secret judgment of God they are arranged for the eternal joy of the elect.”
Pope John Paul II’s 1984 apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), addresses the mystery of human suffering.
“Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: It is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense ‘destined’ to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way,” he stated.
“Down through the centuries and generations it has been seen that in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering, but, above all, that he becomes a completely new person,” Pope John Paul ll wrote in the section titled “The Gospel of Suffering.”
Would the saints have become such great saints without suffering? Father Clark said that we don’t know; only their spiritual directors would know that answer. We do know that the rest of us need mortification to purify our hearts and to help us grow in holiness. Through our sufferings, we learn obedience to God and grow in virtues such as humility and fortitude.
“The Fathers of the Church say that man is given a capax Dei, a capacity for God, and this capacity for God is only fully animated when suffering is introduced into the life of the human person,” said Father Clark.
He explained why suffering is dreaded by the world: “Anything that inhibits the greater maximizing of sensible fulfillments is the ultimate evil, and they dread suffering because they don’t see that the ultimate good of the human soul is communion with God.”
The Blessed Mother can be a source of strength and role model for us in our suffering through her example of heroic virtue and love.
“I think of the Pietà in our church,” says Mary Lenaburg, wife and mother of two from Fairfax, Va. Her 19-year-old daughter Courtney has suffered daily seizures since she was an infant, leaving her profoundly disabled and unable to see, speak or walk.
“I hold my daughter like Mary held Jesus and say, ‘I’m here,’” Lenaburg said. “At the lowest moments, you hit your knees and imagine the blessed Lady when you don’t know if you can withstand it anymore.”
She said that the gift of her joy-filled daughter, whose sole vocation is to love, has taught her family, friends, community and parish about what it means to follow Christ.
“We are here to know him, love him and serve him so that we can be with him in the next life, and we would not have any of that if we didn’t have her,” said Lenaburg. “That’s where you find the joy.”
Lisa Socarras writes from Annandale, Virginia.