The doctrine of redemptive suffering is quite difficult to grasp. Most cradle Catholics recall a parent or teacher’s advice to “offer it up” when they were undergoing some form of pain or discomfort. As a child and younger adult, that seemed nearly frivolous to me, akin to praying to Saint Anthony to help find the misplaced car keys. This is a schoolhouse oversimplification of a complex and mysterious doctrine.
Church teaching is that when we offer up our pains of whatever kind, that is, dedicate our sufferings to God, it contributes to our betterment or the good of others. I am guessing that I am not alone in having heard the doctrine explained, feigned understanding and went away privately feeling embarrassed at not really comprehending it. It is a concept which is slippery and intangible. It does not lend itself well to words for laymen, much like the teaching that Eucharist is actually Christ under the species of bread and wine.
Redemptive suffering is a Rubik’s Cube type of teaching which I told myself someday I was going to tackle. The time has come. My research quickly zeroed-in on the standard explanations. We “unite,” or “join” our sufferings to Christ’s on the cross or “participate in” or “share” His sufferings when we offer up ours. Let’s just say, I had trouble following the logic in that. How could people contemplating themselves onto the cross with Jesus make any difference? Any Christian understands that Christ’s death for our salvation has already been completed. Offering up sufferings seemed to me to lack purpose. What I eventually found out is that we indeed can help souls reach salvation.
Guidance from the Bible and the Saints
The starting point is a few biblical verses which are interpreted to support the doctrine of redemptive suffering. Most frequently cited is the Apostle Paul’s comment in Colossians 1:24, “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ‘s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” In Romans 8:17, Paul also says “we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Even St. (Pope) John Paul II’s 1984 Apostolic Letter on redemptive suffering, Salvifici Doloris, did not clarify the doctrine for me (however, I blame only my own obtuseness for that).
Help emerged from a foggy memory of an often-heard pronouncement. It was the saints, who have told us that offering our sufferings has great value and can even bring joy. That little nugget led me to Our Lady of Fatima, St. Catherine of Siena, St. John Vianney, St. Faustina and St. Pope Pius XII. These historical figures are by no means the only ones who make sense of the doctrine but read collectively, they cinched it for me and spelled out redemptive suffering in a more understandable way.
Stringing Together the Necessary Threads
Our Lady of Fatima showed the three children a vision of Hell. As she revealed this, she told them that many souls end up in Hell because there was no one who made sacrifices or prayed for them. The Fatima prayer, taught by the Virgin Mary, shows us we should offer our prayers for the worst sinners first (“ . . . lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.”) From these references, I infer that people have the potential to help in the actual salvation of souls. I found support for the contention that God may use our prayers, sacrifices or sufferings to expiate sin and punishment.
We know there is a powerful mystical relationship between love and suffering hidden in Christ’s crucifixion. We also know we are supposed to carry our own crosses but the idea of how to mimic His suffering remains unclear.
We pray for each other at every Mass. This is because we are all parts of that, kryptonite, invisible, fishing net, the Body of Christ. We are inexorably linked to each other in the spiritual realm. As Christians, when others are weakened by sin, metaphorically speaking, we yank on our part of the net to pull them back up into grace. It is precisely our role as members in the Body of Christ that helped make the doctrine of redemptive suffering become more comprehensible to me. We can do more for each other than pray.
Successful Sufferings and Instructions from God
Two saint stories illustrate that properly dedicated sufferings for others have resulted in the gift of knowledge that their sacrifices actually resulted in saving souls. Demons repeatedly pursued St. John Vianney. On one occasion, the demon in a possessed person spoke to him and expressed great irritation at his efforts. The demon complained that Hell had lost eighty thousand souls due to the holy priest’s prayers and sacrifices.
St. Faustina received many interior locutions from God, offered many sufferings and kept a detailed diary. During one Lenten period, God explained a dream she had to her. The one thousand living hosts in a ciborium, He told her, were real souls for whom she had obtained the grace of true conversion.
God advised St. Faustina on how to rescue souls through sacrifice and prayer. It must appear outwardly silent, hidden, permeated with love and imbued with prayer. Centuries earlier in St. Catherine of Siena’s The Dialogue, she recorded God’s lessons on a number of spiritual topics. Suffering any kind of pain does not have redemptive value in itself. Instead, it is in the soul’s desire to endure pain through love, with contrition of heart and patient humility which has value. (pg. 16, The Dialogue)
If you act thus, I will satisfy for your sins, and for those of My other servants, inasmuch as the pains which you will endure will be sufficient, through the virtue of love, for satisfaction and reward, both in you and in others. . . In particular, to those who dispose themselves, humbly and with reverence, to receive the doctrine of My servants, will I remit both guilt and penalty, since they will thus come to true knowledge and contrition for their sins. (emphasis added), (pg. 17, The Dialogue).
A Newer View of Redemptive Suffering
Clearly, this doctrine is deep and mystical. I conclude that our sufferings, properly offered, equate to love in the same way Christ’s suffering was love. We should use our suffering to parallel Christ’s love-suffering for us. (Parallel makes more sense to me but I do not intend to contradict Church teaching.)
Our offered sufferings then may be applied by God to get souls off the track to Hell and onto the track to Heaven by whatever means He sees fit. I suppose this could take many forms, placement of people or events into a sinner’s life, a last-minute reprieve before death, or infusion of grace in a myriad of ways which results in conversions of hearts.
My view is that we should dedicate our sufferings to God with love, true passion, and intention. It may take some time to be able to do that well, driving on through our pains, tears, and agonies. When we do offer our sufferings in a suitable manner, they may serve as a spiritual currency which God can then spend as grace and mercy on us or others, i.e., the Body of Christ. One might wince at the financial metaphor but it is fitting as Christ’s own sacrifice is known as the paid ransom for Israel.
The uphill challenge is to put ourselves in the correct frame of mind of love and humility when making the offerings of our sufferings. I assume that reaching this level of love comes from a deep desire to do God’s will, i.e., to love one another as He loved us. No doubt it takes a lot of practice to attain the holy stage that Saints Vianney and Faustina did. We may not love as deeply as we should at first. Still, we can know that there is great spiritual value in our offered sufferings and we can continue to grow spiritually to seek the fruits of redemptive suffering, purgation, uniting more closely with God and redemption for others.
St. Pope Pius XII summed it up nicely:
Dying on the Cross He left to His Church the immense treasure of the Redemption, towards which she contributed nothing. But when those graces come to be distributed, not only does He share this work of sanctification with His Church, but He wills that in some way it be due to her action. This is a deep mystery, and an inexhaustible subject of meditation, that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention . . . Mystici Corporis Christi, 44
From St. Catherine of Siena, we know that our desire to suffer for God is pleasing to him and it strengthens our love of God and His truth. It is indeed a hard sell for us in our worldly ways. Yet, it is not like getting on ice skates or skis for the first time with friends or family watching. With guidance from the saints, elucidating scripture, you can work on this in the privacy of own heart when talking to God.