Spe Salvi 39: Suffering For Others

What does it mean to move toward the person who is suffering? To shield and protect them? Or even just to bear the wrongs and hurts they bear, perhaps alone? This is where the topic Action and suffering as settings for learning hope leads us today. We start with a lot of questions:

39. To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy (humankind it)self. Yet once again the question arises: are we capable of this? Is the other important enough to warrant my becoming, on (their) account, a person who suffers? Does truth matter to me enough to make suffering worthwhile? Is the promise of love so great that it justifies the gift of myself?

Jesus, of course, answered in the affirmative. Did he answer for the rest of us?

In the history of humanity, it was the Christian faith that had the particular merit of bringing forth within (people) a new and deeper capacity for these kinds of suffering that are decisive for (our) humanity. The Christian faith has shown us that truth, justice and love are not simply ideals, but enormously weighty realities. It has shown us that God —Truth and Love in person—desired to suffer for us and with us. Bernard of Clairvaux coined the marvelous expression: Impassibilis est Deus, sed non incompassibilis [Sermones in Cant., Sermo 26, 5:PL 183, 906]—God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. (We are) worth so much to God that he himself became (flesh) in order to suffer with (us) in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood—as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’s Passion.

Which even in these early Easter days can still be fresh in our minds, hearts, and spiritual experiences.

Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God’s compassionate love—and so the star of hope rises. Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too—a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favorable resolution of a crisis, and so on. In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient.

The Lord might caution us: even the pagans and non-believers and the sinners do as much. They visit others, heal hurts, play diplomat and negotiator, and do all sorts of virtuous tasks often identified with Christians. Sometimes they get paid for it, as we do. Sometimes, they act with no personal benefit at all, and frequently with significant personal cost.

But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great hope of which we have spoken here. For this too we need witnesses—martyrs—who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way—day after day.

Not sure here if Pope Benedict XVI is citing traditional martyrs of life–people who were killed for the faith. It could be interpreted as such. Much more difficult is the “day after day” situation of caring for others when death is not an option for us. I think of tending loved ones for years who languish in a debilitated state, or the sacrifice of missioners to teach, feed, build, and pray with people in poverty.

We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day—knowing that this is how we live life to the full. Let us say it once again: the capacity to suffer for the sake of the truth is the measure of humanity. Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the hope that we bear within us and build upon. The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.

We likely must ask ourselves if we labor to “suffer with” others: are we uncovering hope as we are doing it, or is it just a slog in which we’ve planted ourselves?

This document is Copyright © 2007 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana. You can find the full document online here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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