This was written about the suffering Pope, before the terrible news. John Paul taught us how to suffer — then he taught us how to die. May he rest at last.
by CARDINAL ZENON GROCHOLEWSKI
lthough it may seem like a paradox, in reality the Holy Father is even more present amid his closest collaborators when he is sick in the hospital outside the Vatican. He is more present in their thoughts, in their prayers, in their spiritual union with him, and in their sense of responsibility for the work that has been entrusted to each one of them.
Above all, his presence is felt through his example of suffering in his work of evangelization and in carrying out the mission of Peter.
In this perspective, I would like to point out that, insofar as the effectiveness of one’s office is concerned, the logic of faith is different from our purely human way of thinking, where effectiveness is dependent upon physical abilities, intelligence and personal effort.
In the spiritual realm, this is not the case. At a time when his physical effectiveness is limited yet when he is steadfastly giving witness to Christ and is strengthening his brothers and sisters in the faith, the Pope expresses in an eloquent way this logic of faith. Thus, he is a living message for priests and for all the faithful, making them aware of the truth that the fulfillment of their priesthood — and in a general way the fruitfulness of whatever mission Christ has entrusted to them — does not depend on physical capacity or the possibility of fulfilling some external actions, but above all on the actual witness they give to Christ, on their own holiness, and on their giving of themselves.
The suffering Pope shows us that we can carry out an apostolate not only with words, but even more with our attitude, our prayer and our own suffering, which is united to the suffering of Christ for the salvation of men. He shows us that even in our greatest physical weakness we can be spiritually fruitful and build up the Church. Indeed, Christ did this when, humanly speaking, he could do nothing as he was being nailed to the cross. It was at that moment that the great work of redemption was being fulfilled.
I am completely convinced that the Holy Father, through his suffering that is united to the suffering of Christ on the cross, is currently making an important contribution to building up the kingdom of God on earth and in carrying out in a very effective way this mission of strengthening his brothers and sisters in the faith — a mission that Christ entrusted to him. I am filled with admiration for his tenacity in giving himself completely to the very end: Totus tuus! (He concluded his first communication after one recent operation, which out of necessity was expressed in writing, with the words: “I remain always Totus tuus!”)
Often, when I am writing to priests who are beginning their retirement years, I note that there is indeed such a thing as retirement (for example, from the position of pastor or catechist), but there is no retirement from the priesthood. They shall always remain priests. Even though they are old and infirm, they can no less effectively and perhaps even more intensely carry out their priesthood. In fact, our priestly activity can be measured more than by any other thing by the sacrifice we offer to Christ, and opportunities to do so are never lacking.
This also relates to the faithful. As chaplain of a retirement home in Rome for several years, I tried to involve the elderly in the Church’s apostolate through prayer and suffering. I explained to them that it is simply not true that there was nothing they can do and that it is not true that they were no longer productive because of age or illness. I told them that it would be a sin if their various sufferings were either lost or only led to an ever-deepening sense of defeat.
I tried to convince the residents of the home that, by living out their sufferings with love and uniting them with the suffering of Christ for the salvation of the world, their sufferings could become a means of apostolic action and a means of their own sanctification.
Frequently I have had the joy of admiring the generosity of these people in offering up their own suffering for the fruitful outcome of one of the Holy Father’s trips or for some other concrete intention within the apostolate. Confronting suffering in this way was a great spiritual comfort for them, increasing their feeling of usefulness and helping them to maintain a sense of spiritual peace.
Moreover, if our activities, experiences and sufferings are not permeated with love, everything becomes much less effective and bears little fruit in the perspective of evangelization and salvation. St. Paul expressed this idea in a very vivid way: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
In the epilogue of his recent book, Memory and Identity (Rizzoli, 2005), the Holy Father explains, among other things, this dynamism of the transformation of suffering with love in a very expressive way. We also find a clear reference to the realities of the contemporary world and to his own suffering in the following explanation:
“In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love. It is true that suffering entered human history with original sin. Sin is that ‘sting’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:55-56) which inflicts pain, wounding man mortally. Yet the passion of Christ on the Cross gave a radically new meaning to suffering, transforming it from within. It introduced into human history, which is the history of sin, a blameless suffering accepted purely for love. This suffering opens the door to the hope of liberation, hope for the definitive elimination of that ‘sting,’ which is tearing humanity apart. It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good.
“All human suffering, all pain, all infirmity contains within itself a promise of salvation, a promise of joy: ‘I am rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake,’ writes St. Paul (Colossians 1:24). This applies to all forms of suffering, called forth by evil. It applies to that enormous social and political evil which divides and torments the world today: the evil of war, the evil of oppression afflicting individuals and peoples, the evil of social injustice, of human dignity trodden underfoot, of racial and religious discrimination, the evil of violence, terrorism, the arms race — all this evil is present in the world partly so as to awaken our love, our self-gift in generous and disinterested service to those visited by suffering” (Pages 167-168).
The Holy Father is making his own via crucis creative and fruitful within the perspective of the specific mission Christ has entrusted to him, and is giving us a powerful example of how to face suffering.
Polish Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski
is the Vatican’s Prefect of Catholic Education.