Suffering, Catholic Style!‏

Leila Miller

A while back on my personal blog, I presented a secular view of suffering. I posited that, for the secular left, suffering is seen as worse than sin or death. Suffering has no meaning, and the goal becomes maximizing pleasure and avoiding pain.

There is a very different view of suffering on the Catholic side o’ town.

The late, great John Cardinal O’Connor of New York once told a suffering woman, “Christ could have saved the world by His miracles, but He chose to save the world by His suffering.”

This great truth is the basis of our understanding of redemptive suffering.

Let me back up a bit…

When Adam and Eve sinned and fell from grace, suffering and death entered the world. Because of this Original Sin, we are separated from God and stuck in a disordered, fallen world. Nothing comes easy for us, and suffering is our lot. Anyone who says this world is not a vale of tears is smoking something funny, or is actually a pod person. (While most Americans are bred to believe that life should be mostly joyful with moments of difficulty, life is actually mostly difficult, with moments of incredible joy.)

So Adam and Eve blew it, and for generations (long before Jesus came), God’s people tried to “make it right” with God by offering animal sacrifices to the Lord. But none of those sacrifices were good enough. Then one day Jesus came to meet us in this vale of tears. Jesus (the God-Man) bridged the chasm between God and man, and by His great suffering and death on the Cross, He offered Himself as a perfect sacrifice to the Father. Jesus’ sacrifice of love was so pleasing to the Father that it merited grace in abundance, enough to redeem all the world! The gates of Heaven were now open again, to all men of good will.

Jesus’ suffering was redemptive.

What does that have to do with our suffering? Well, when we were baptized, we were baptized into the Body of Christ. We are the Body of Christ. When we “offer up” our sufferings in union with Christ’s suffering on the Cross, we, as His Body, are participating in His atoning work! When God the Father looks upon our offering, He sees His Son’s offering, and He is pleased… and graces come flowing down in abundance!

Do you get how amazing this is??

When we unite our suffering with Christ’s suffering, we participate in the redemption of the world!

It is as dramatic as it sounds!

When offered to God, no suffering is meaningless. No suffering is wasted. No suffering is worse than death. Suffering offered in union with Christ’s Cross has explosive power, including the power to sanctify not only our own souls, but to call down grace upon others as well. The saints knew this. The saints had an abundance of grace in their own souls already, but yet the suffering they endured was profound. What was it for? What was it worth? It was offered for souls. The saints offered their sufferings for the sins of the world, for the souls of others, and it was redemptive, because it was offered in union with Christ’s suffering. This is how the Body of Christ works!

Now, this doesn’t mean we go looking for suffering (suffering will find us without us having to look for it), and it doesn’t mean that we stand by while others suffer (we are called to ease the sufferings of others). But when suffering comes, it is not meaningless; it is of great value to ourselves and to the world.

Many Protestants object to the concept of redemptive suffering, saying, “But Jesus didn’t need our help in redeeming the world. His sacrifice was sufficient. We can add nothing to it!”

They are certainly right that Jesus did not need our help. In fact, God doesn’t need us at all; He is God! But if you think God wouldn’t receive and use our offering, read this reflection by Jewish convert Rosiland Moss, as she struggled with the idea of redemptive suffering when she was leaving evangelicalism for Catholicism:

I thought immediately of a mother baking a cake, and her little child in the kitchen with her. The mother has everything there sufficient for the cake; but here comes the daughter and says, ‘Mommy, I want to help.’ So the mother receives the daughter because that love receives. She lets the daughter put the eggs in. Is the mother sufficient? Yes. Does she need the daughter? No. Does she allow the daughter to add? Yes. The daughter’s addition is not needed, but it’s received and it’s a true addition. And I thought, ‘That’s love.’

Let’s look to Scripture and see what St. Paul says on the subject:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church…  — Colossians 1:24

What?! Something was “lacking” in Christ’s afflictions?! Something that St. Paul “completed” in his very flesh, rejoicing in his sufferings?! What was lacking? What is lacking? Our part is lacking. Our part, where we offer our own sufferings for the sake of the Body of Christ, the Church.

Redemptive suffering. Praise God, it’s a beautiful thing.

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66 thoughts on “Suffering, Catholic Style!‏”

  1. Bill S brings up some pretty good points, and I certainly understand what he is saying. I have strong feelings of doubts, especially with the way the Bible describes things with the first man and woman.

    With all that we know now in regards to all of the scientific evidence that is far more complicated than the basic descriptions stated in the first chapter of Genesis. There are certainly many things that we are asked to believe that is NOT EASY to actually believe. Many people accept the literal interpretations. That is it, and that is all. Me? I tend to seek answers, especially in this particular “age of enlightenlent” that we live in now.

    The most glaring evidence to me that there is something more to life than only the things we as humans can measure is life itself. Meaning, there are simply too many ANTHROPIC coincidences that make up life. From the earth rotating at precise angle and speed. Gravity having basic laws, which with out those LAWS planets would not orbit the way they do. With out those two basic things, life would be impossible.

    Then there are all of the other coincidences. Each one making the notion of it being all coincidences exponentially greater. Meaning, physicists always maintain there are mathematic probabilities to describe everything. Well, what has confused them for centuries is this notion of ANTHROPIC coincidence.

    Here is a list of more coincidences that makes life possible..

    > The electromagnetic coupling constant binds electrons to protons in atoms. The characteristics of the orbits of electrons about atoms determines to what degree atoms will bond together to form molecules. If the electromagnetic coupling constant were slightly smaller, no electrons would be held in orbits about nuclei. If it were slightly larger, an atom could not “share” an electron orbit with other atoms. Either way, molecules, and hence life, would be impossible.

    >The fine structure constants relate directly to each of the four fundamental forces of physics (gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear). Compared to the coupling constants, the fine structure constants typically yield stricter design constraints for the universe. For example, the electromagnetic fine structure constant affects the opacity of stellar material. (Opacity is the degree to which a material permits radiant energy to pass through). In star formation, gravity pulls material together while thermal motions tend to pull it apart. An increase in the opacity of this material will limit the effect of thermal motions. Hence, smaller clumps of material will be able to overcome the resistance of the thermal motions. If the electromagnetic fine structure constant were slightly larger, all stars would be less than 0.7 times the mass of the sun. If the electromagnetic fine structure constant were slightly smaller, all stars would be more than 1.8 times the mass of the sun.


    There is long list of these types of coincidences. Not to mention that the simple notion of balance. I mean do species consciously realize they play a role in the balance of life? Does a bee really have the conscious awareness that it is conducting a crucial role in life and what that crucial role is?

    Can we really fully understand how all of these living creatures have INSTINCTS and these INSTINCTS just so happen to provide a balance? Do we have any idea what the odds are that all of those species just so happen to have instincts and all of them play a crucial role in the ecology and balance of life?

    There are simply things that go so way beyond our ability to understand that it is pointless to contemplate. Again, things that go beyond our ability to measure, which is what science really is. It is about measurement. Virtually all of our understanding it limited to some kind of measurement. How fast? How far? How big? Etc etc etc.

    There are things, even in science, that must be accepted on faith. Things that cannot be proven. Christ even told Peter (eternal words as is everything else recorded in the Gospels) that there are many things Christ wanted to tell Peter but Peter could not “handle it.”

    Again, most Christians who I have spoken with have struggles with doubts. Mother Teresa had this struggle her entire life. All of the disciples turned their backs on Christ, and they witnessed miracles, ate with Him and heard His words. Yet, they willingly SUFFERED horrific deaths in the end. I mean if what they were seeing or believing were lies, I doubt ALL of them would have willingly SUFFERED the kinds of deaths they did.

    I understand what Bill is saying. In this age, with all that we know, the notion of the LITERAL interpretations of the Bible is pretty difficult accept. Like Noah’s Ark. I do however, have a certain that leads me to accept things on FAITH. Which is why I am so bothered by my own sins. That is another story all together.

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  3. Thank you, Leila. This is a necessary perspective. Certainly not seeking suffering, but ‘offering it up’ as the nuns taught me years ago. I was glad I had heard that by the time I experienced real suffering, even though I sometimes, well, often, thought there’s got to be a better way. But age and experience have taught me the value of redemptive suffering, and the “prayer” of redemptive suffering.

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  5. Can we offer up the sufferings of others as redemptive suffering? For instance, is a person is brain damaged, can a loved one pray this on their behalf– even if the person is unaware of the concept of Redemptive Suffering?

    1. Good question, but I think the answer is that we can only offer up our own sufferings. However, I am sure God knows the heart of those who suffer in any capacity, and the suffering of those of good will will never be wasted.

    2. I suppose it is of some comfort to think that way about suffering but it only makes sense to suffer for some purpose such as getting in shape (no pain, no gain) or for some other purpose in this life such as suffering through adversity for beneficial results such as monetary reward.

    1. Gee. Why am I not surprised? This is similar to what I saw retweeted by Richard Dawkins. It was a poster tweeted by Ricky Gervais about redemptive suffering. It was passed around as a kind of joke.

    2. No. I have no motivation to do anything nice for anyone. I just sold tootsie rolls for the Knights of Columbus. Before that I didn’t do anything since you recommended I do something like that.

    3. You have to experiance … ie: extreme suffering, in order to fully divine the peace associated with this offering, Bill. Minimum pre-qualification requires belief in a higher power to say the least, and a deep understanding of Christ’s parables. You don’t
      seem to qualify but then again there’s still time.

    4. Actually the parables are all great. I understand them fine. When stories are understood to be just stories that is good. When they are taken as non-fiction, that can be a problem.

    5. Glad I know only brave souls, Bill. Brittany Maynard can’t hold a candle
      to my hospice patients – who do go gentle into the dimming of the light.

    6. So you think what Brittany Maynard is doing is wrong? It is a good thing she has the ability to take up residency in Oregon. That shouldn’t even be necessary. Every state should afford her that right. It is only Catholic superstition that makes you think she shouldn’t do this.

    7. It is only wrong if it meets the conditions, most notably that she knows it’s wrong.
      She probly wouldn’t do this if she was in her ie:60’s. But at 29 and most likely
      bitter at the thought of life denied, she is taking her own course out. i hope too
      that someone tells her to keep her mind on the source of of what she is giving
      up just before the drugs start flowing. It can’t be any less horrifying knowing the
      start of your own execution than the natural finish of that unknown sequence
      another death would have provided.

    8. It is only wrong if it meets the conditions, most notably that she knows it’s wrong.

      Actually, she knows it is the right thing to do. You make it seem as though it is a given that what she is doing is wrong and that the only variable is whether or not she KNOWS that it IS WRONG.

      If it is right for her, it’s going to have to be right for you, me and everybody else. I don’t see how anyone can look at it any other way.

    9. In the last scenario, when you take the “thing” out of your own hands, there is no second guessing. How many untold people have set out on that course and at
      the last microsecond, as they fall 15 stories, or kick the chair out from under or swallow the pills, how many think: Oh oh !?

    10. James,

      She is not choosing to die as opposed to live. She is dying. It’s not a matter of if she will die. It’s only a matter of when and how. She is simply choosing the when and how for herself as opposed to leaving it to fate or chance.

    11. In ending, let’s hope that two weeks post dying, a new surgical or radioactive
      technique isn’t developed that could have added years to her life. I wonder what
      all Brittany’s supporters would have thought after that revolting development

    12. It is a quality of life matter. Living longer through painful treatments would not be what she probably wants. If a miracle cure were to be found after her death that could be a kick in the teeth. But that is highly unlikely and mere speculation.

    13. The days she would have lived beyond the one she picked may have changed someone
      else’s life. Just like the day you have today may impact someone in a way you could not
      imagine and this in turn resonates from that life to others. Of course there is the other
      side you mentioned, pain, despair and … what difference does it make who decides.
      If Stephan Hawking can hang in there as a somewhat atheist minded soul and amaze a
      world with his contributions I’m sure Brittany can too. No one is condemning her soul,
      just questioning the reasoning she has no worth left to offer.

    14. I guess I agree that she should be able to say “maybe one more day” for as long as she wants. But that is her call. I would not worry about what I could do for anyone else in the last days I had on this earth. I don’t think that is an important consideration to her. She deserves to have some “me” time.

  6. Amen Leila. Protestants want an easy way out to blame it on somebody else or bad luck or wrong time of the year or “Why do bad things happen to good people?” etc. It is also an article of Faith that the fall in The Garden brought sin and death to the world. Without death we would live forever, something Adam and Eve sacrificed for their own will and short term gratification. Without evil, a deprivation of good, and suffering is an evil, we would never die. Not all suffering leads to death, granted, but that is where we have the chance to join it to Jesus. Part of suffering in lieu of this approach becomes worse because people don’t know why they have it and what to do about it? Thus, the horrible effect of the modern trends to drugs, sex addiction, alcohol, obsession with self, etc, all the “pain-killers” of our time.

    Your piece is certainly timely and should be widely read. Thank you.

    1. Laurence Charles Ringo

      Your blatant attempt to throw all Protestants under your self-righteous bus just serves to illustrate the ignorance of your presumptions regarding what you THINK you know about those your catechism refers to as”the separated brethren”, a condescending, facetious pretense if I ever heard one . I can only assume by your ridiculous comments that you probably don’t actually know any Protestants; at any rate, you would do well to get to know us before making ill-informed statements concerning OUR approach to suffering.

    2. Laurence, I cannot speak for WHB, but I am assuming he meant to critique the very popular “health and wealth” gospel, which is of course a false gospel. It would be impossible to pin down Protestantism’s view of suffering, as there are as many views as there are denominations, and I’m sure that some of the denominations do understand that suffering has a redemptive quality. I am not sure that they can fully account for Colossians 1:24, however.

    3. Laurence Charles Ringo

      Fine, Leila;if.that is what”WHB”meant, then let him say so, instead of throwing a condescending, pejorative blanket over ALL Protestants, which is what his post implied.I myself criticize the so-called”health, wealth, and prosperity”pseudo-‘gospel’; all Spirit-filled, discerning Christians know that it’s as fake as a 7-dollar bill! My point is I will not stand by when my brothers and sisters in Christ are unfairly maligned; even though I myself am not a catholic, when their beliefs are unfairly criticized, at the very least I will protest that whatever is being misrepresented regarding said beliefs, the critic is wrong. (If the critic IS wrong! )—as for Colossians 1:24, given that there is indeed a sort of joint redemptive quality attendant upon what we suffer as Christians, I’ll concede that, to a point. Even so, the metaphor must not be made to say TOO must, and I’ll leave it at that, satisfied that depending on who’s doing the interpreting, too much, too little, or just enough will be said, and the Holy Spirit will get it straight in MY heart, when all is said and done.—PEACE.

    4. Fair enough on the first part, and on the second part, you’ve opened up the question of interpretation and authority. And clearly, as a Catholic and a Protestant, we have differing thoughts on that topic. 😉 Blessings!

    5. Are you really trying to say that there was a real Adam and Eve who really committed a real “Original Sin” and that is why we have death? How does natural selection, for which death is essential, fit into this picture? Isn’t death a part of a circle of life that is of benefit to evolution rather than a punishment for some kind of mythological disobedience by a mythological couple who were supposedly the first humans?

    6. Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say. Sin entered the world and the wages of sin is death. Thankfully, Christ has conquered death, as you used to know and believe.

    7. It is funny that you have a worldview that works and I have one that doesn’t but I can’t accept yours for the simple reason that everything about yours is based on “the Truth”. I have discovered that there is absolutely nothing factual about “the Truth”. I think the concept is derived from the Gospel of John which was greatly influenced by Greek philosophy from which we also get the Word (Logos). It is a great concept but it is applied to something that is exactly opposite of the real truth. Jesus says to Martha, just before supposedly raising Lazarus, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. If you buy that, you’re all set, even if it is complete hogwash. Just believing it sets your life up for a delusion that works better than reality itself. It works so well that I wish I could just forget reality and go with it myself. But the trick is to believe with all your being and I can’t do that because I know the real truth and not the made up “Truth”.

    8. The “real truth” is contained in the accumulated knowledge of the human race. It is found in education from preschool to universities. It is explored by scientists and scholars.

      It is not what people like you like to call “the Truth” with a capital “T” which includes absolutely unbelievable ideas on how we got here and where we are going. It says that a deity created everything in an order that makes no sense. It says that this deity created the first man and woman who incurred his wrath and brought death into the world. The real truth is taught in schools and is nothing like “the Truth”.

    9. You said:

      The “real truth” is contained in the accumulated knowledge of the human race. It is found in education from preschool to universities. It is explored by scientists and scholars.

      Much accumulated knowledge of the human race is Catholic. Many preschools and universities are Catholic (you may recall that the university system was actually founded by the Catholic Church). Many scientists and scholars are Catholic (you may want to look into a history of modern science). So…. now what? Is that where we get truth? Because if you are talking about Catholic schools and universities and scholars and scientists, and knowledge of the human race, then we are in agreement! We can definitely find truth there!

    10. Catholics have made major contributions to the accumulated knowledge of the world which is the real truth. I don’t consider dogma and doctrines of the Catholic Church as part of the real truth though. I had secular knowledge in mind. Like evolution as opposed to the Genesis account of creation, etc.

    11. Right. But that goes back to the original question. Where did you find this “truth” that you say you have? Are you the arbiter of truth? We always come back to that.

    12. This question is addressed by the writer of the Gospel of John, who is supposedly John, the apostle that Jesus loved (according to the writer but not stated in the other gospels).

      He sets us up by having Jesus call himself “the Way, the Truth and the Life”. The early Christians were referred to as followers of the Way. When we swear on the Bible we promise to tell the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth so help me God. That is because the Bible supposedly IS THE TRUTH. And the Life is the eternal life which is promised to us by the Truth if we follow the Way.

      So, it is quite clear when the writer has Pilate ask Jesus “what is Truth” that we are being set up to be presented with something that isn’t just true in ordinary terms. It is THE TRUTH.

      When you went to BC you were taught many things, most of which happened to be true. Those things were the real truth. Someone telling you the real truth just trusted that you would believe what they were saying to you. They didn’t have to spend twenty minutes explaining how what they were going to teach you was the “Truth” with a capital “T”. If they had, you probably had good reason to check out their credibility and anything they taught you. That is what we all should do when presented with that “Truth”.

      So, to answer your question, the real truth is something that can be presented without the person having to convince you how important it is that you believe them as crazy as what they are going to tell you may seem to you. And if they tell you how great it will be for you if you believe and how bad it will be if you don’t you really should require a lot of evidence of what they are saying being true before you choose to believe it.

    13. Thanks for telling me your subjective opinion, your peculiar exegesis, and your experience, but it’s not my experience at all. Sorry. 🙂

      And when I went to Boston College, there was very little of the Catholic “truth” taught. I did have a couple of good professors though….

    14. Peculiar exegesis? Isn’t that your understanding of the “Truth”. The Truth that Pilate asked about and that Jesus claimed to be and what you see the Bible as being? Isn’t that the Truth that you are trying to say is the real truth?

    15. I am assuming you don’t believe it’s the Truth, no? That’s what I meant. You see the Bible as a “set up” and a snow job.

    16. Yes. In other words, there is the small “t” truth such as news events, known historical information, mathematical equations, etc. Then there is the big “T” Truth such as the central Truth of the Resurrection (which if it were ever confirmed that it isn’t true would cast doubt about anything considered to be part of the Truth). I doubt the veracity of the “Truth”.

    17. But the Resurrection is “historical information”. The New Testament is history. You discount it because you discount miracles and the supernatural from the get-go.

    18. The “historical information” would be a description of how Christianity began when people claiming that their leader rose from the dead started a new sect of Judaism that became Christianity. Historical information does not include supernatural events but only reports of supernatural events. That three children claimed to see the Virgin Mary at Fatima and that thousands claimed to witness a miracle is historical information. That the Virgin Mary appeared to the children and the sun was spinning is not.

    19. So how would the history of supernatural events be recorded? If they happened, aren’t they part of history? You see, you presuppose that miracles can’t happen, and so therefore can’t be actually “history”. I disagree, obviously.

    20. Other than stories found in the Bible and in the scriptures of other religions, have you ever read in any history book about any supernatural event? Are religious people the only ones who witness supernatural events? In a real history book, you don’t read about Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc. In your mind, the “World” is against religion which makes the World “lost” and not “saved” because there is something that people like you know that the World doesn’t know. I obviously don’t agree.

    21. I suggest you ask one of your kids for their history book so you don’t have to take my word for what “real” history is. I can’t believe we are having this discussion. You are an honors BC graduate. You should know what real history is.

    22. Why didn’t you just answer my direct question? And as far as my kids’ history books, you mean the Catholic homeschooling ones? Okay, I will ask my kids. 😉

      And honors BC graduate indeed. I took history classes right next door to where they offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at that Catholic college. I’m glad you consider the school sound. 🙂

    23. Leila,

      Why can we not even agree on what is in children’s history books. I doubt that even homeschool history books contain any mention of anything miraculous or supernatural. Those are covered by religious lessons not world history.

    24. Because you only acknowledge secular history books, and you reject the testimony of the New Testament (which is more than one book) out of hand, simply because of the miracles. But the New Testament is history. Real history. And my children’s homeschooling history books cover plenty of Catholic history and lives of saints, as well as Church history (which shaped all of Western Civilization), so yes, they mention the supernatural. Is Catholicism and Jesus not part of world history?

    25. Yes. Catholicism and Jesus are part of world history in that the world is a better place because of them. But an historical account would have to be honest in stating that, outside of what is written in the Bible, little is actually known about Jesus. It is up to each individual to decide how much creedance to place in the Bible. Some believe in all of it, some believe in some of it and some believe in none of it.

    26. Well, when it’s been written by several different people about historical events, it seems weird to put little to no credence in it. With what other history would you do that?

    27. Historical events can be believed or disbelieved. Did Washington cross the Delaware? Probably. Do I lose my eternal soul if I don’t believe that he did and I am wrong? No.

      Only something so ridiculous as the Resurrection would require telling people that they must believe it in order to have eternal life. That’s no way to teach history.

    28. Again, this is according to… Bill. You have given your opinion, but it’s not based on anything except your opinion and feelings on the matter. By the way, if anyone told me that I had to believe my grandma was a carrot to have eternal life, I would not believe it. The only reason the Resurrection was believed is because people, by the thousands, witnessed the Resurrected Jesus, after His certain death. There would be no other reason to believe, and people back then were not complete morons. They still had brains, and in fact, their reasoning skills may have been better than the average American today. 🙂

    29. I’m just saying that the Resurrection is not recorded as a historical event anywhere but in the Bible and the Bible is not accepted by historians as anything other than a religious book.

    30. “…the Bible is not accepted by historians as anything other than a religious book.” Not sure this is at all accurate.

    31. It doesn’t matter. Believing the Bible to be a source of historical knowledge has certain positive effects on people’s outlooks on life that they don’t want to lose. What I see as the real truth makes this life less interesting and meaningful and that is not what people want to believe. It is like shoveling against the tide trying to convince people of faith that what they believe is not true and that this purposeless and meaningless life is all that there is. I don’t know why I get so hung up on getting across to people my perception of reality and truth.

    32. The gospels and Acts are written as historical accounts but I don’t consider them to be all that accurate. I am sure there are inaccuracies in many historical accounts about many events where the writers are not eyewitnesses.

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