Q&A with Fr John Flader: Finding meaning in suffering

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A patient is pictured in a file photo chatting with a nun at Rosary Hill Home, a Dominican-run facility in Hawthorne, N.Y., that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and have financial need. PHOTO: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz

Dear Father, I am totally opposed to euthanasia. But, realistically, when someone is suffering greatly both they and their carers can find it very difficult to bear. What can we do to help them cope with their pain and find meaning in it?

When someone is experiencing great pain, as many do, the first thing, of course, is to use all the available means to relieve the pain. These days drugs such as morphine are very effective in reducing pain to a point where it is at least bearable. It is the role of palliative care to help those, especially at the end of their life, to be as comfortable as possible, and this care is now widely available. It is in this area where money and effort should be put, rather than in finding better ways to end the life of those who are suffering. We should kill the pain of the person, not the person with the pain.

Nonetheless, I suspect we have all been with people who were experiencing great pain or discomfort, and the best efforts of medicine were not enough to alleviate it. It is then that we can help them find meaning and purpose in their suffering. Some considerations can be of help.

“… just as Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross redeemed us, so our suffering, borne with love, helps to redeem us and make up for our sins.”

First, we can remind those suffering that they can unite their suffering with that of Christ on the Cross. He suffered more than we ever will and, because he loves us, he sometimes shares his cross with us. A Canberra mother of six expressed this eloquently when she was dying with cancer some years ago and wrote in her diary: “The pain in my chest is crushing me. As the pain crushed You as You struggled to breathe while you hung on the Cross. You are in my pain. I am in Yours. We are one – my God and I! What else can I ever ask for? In this You have given me proof of your love.”

Second, just as Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross redeemed us, so our suffering, borne with love, helps to redeem us and make up for our sins. It can be our “purgatory on earth” and hopefully enable us to go straight to heaven when we die. It is better to do our purgatory here rather than hereafter, since all agree that the slightest pain of purgatory is greater than the greatest pain on earth. It would be a great waste if we didn’t take advantage of suffering in this way.

Pope John Paul II prays at the Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, Lithuania, in 1993. Photo: CNS/Arturo Mari, L’Osservatore Romano

In this regard, Pope St John Paul II writes in his Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris on the Christian meaning of suffering: “Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. And at the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love, to that love of which Christ spoke to Nicodemus, to that love which creates good, drawing it out by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross constantly takes its beginning” (n. 18).

Third, it is important to remember that our earthly suffering lasts only for a time whereas the happiness of heaven is forever. And our suffering on earth is little compared with the happiness which awaits us in heaven. The Old Testament Book of Wisdom, speaking of people of faith, says: “The world sees nothing but the pains they endure; they themselves have eyes only for what is immortal; so light their suffering, so great the gain they win!” (Wis 3:4-5).

“It is in this area where money and effort should be put, rather than in finding better ways to end the life of those who are suffering. We should kill the pain of the person, not the person with the pain.”

And St Paul writes: “We are . . . fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:17-18). When we are suffering, we can lift our thoughts above and think of the great joy that awaits us in heaven, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (cf. Rev. 7:17).

Fourth, and very importantly, we can offer our suffering for others: for the souls in purgatory, for the Pope and the Church, for members of our family, for anyone with special needs… Since suffering is a sacrifice, it has special value because it costs us more. If we do this, the suffering benefits us greatly and it helps others too, through the communion of saints.

All in all, suffering has great value. It is a treasure. Anyone who bears it with love and offers it for others is sanctified by it and helps many others.