The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Feb. 11, was a special day for Blessed John Paul II. In 1992, he expanded the feast into the World Day of the Sick. Eight years earlier, however, he issued his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering) on the anniversary of the first appearance of Our Lady to St. Bernadette.
Blessed John Paul rode against the tide on many topics, but perhaps none more than that of human suffering. Ours is an age, especially in the West, that views comfort and pleasure as the greatest good and suffering as the worst evil. The rising call for assisted suicide is due in no small part to the prevailing sentiment that esteems a comfortable, content life as the greatest to which one can aspire.
The pope understood the paradoxical nature of suffering - suffering enters creation as evil, a lack of perfection. The Christian, like the Good Samaritan, is called to prevent and alleviate the suffering of others. Christ, however, "has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation" (n. 26).
When suffering comes to a person, one initially protests "Why me?" One must accept the cross as essential to following Jesus. Indeed, Christ repeatedly told his disciples they must suffer - they should deny themselves; the way to the kingdom is hard and narrow; following Jesus will lead to persecution.
Suffering, Blessed John Paul wrote, has a special power that draws one to Christ. One experiences solidarity with the Son of God who became human in order to be crucified at a garbage dump. Christ's death and resurrection offer hope where otherwise there appears to be only unmitigated evil.
Christ redeemed humanity completely through his cross. Yet, here is another paradox: "It seems to be part of the very essence of Christ's redemptive suffering that this suffering requires to be unceasingly completed" (n. 25). Suffering, freely accepted in union with the suffering of Christ, "completes" the suffering of Calvary.
In this way, suffering which is intrinsically evil becomes perhaps the highest good. This is not masochism. Rather, it is the highest dignity of the human person to be united with God in redeeming creation. The suffering person has participated in the cosmic battle between good and evil, and, united with Christ, has turned evil into good.
Blessed John Paul is remembered in two ways. There was the vibrant pope of the first half of his pontificate who barnstormed the world and was the picture of the fullness of life. Then there was the increasingly frail and finally mute pope of his final years.
Both of those popes were great and holy. In the final analysis, though, it was the pope of the later years who revealed most clearly the path of discipleship.