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Thirty years ago today, Pope John Paul II released a work so important to him that he urged all the faithful of the world to “reread and meditate” upon it. He told World Youth Day participants that he wanted this work “to be a guide” for their lives. He even incorporated this document into two of his most influential encyclicals, Fides et Ratio and Evangelium Vitae . Protestant philosopher Alvin Plantinga called it “surely one of the finest documents (outside the Bible) ever written” on its topic.

This much-vaunted work is not John Paul’s Catechesis on Human Love. It’s Salvifici Doloris, his apostolic letter on what he called the “Gospel of suffering,” and its message is as needed today as it was thirty years ago. Perhaps it is even more necessary, given current government efforts to obstruct the Church’s outreach to the sick, the oppressed, and the outcast. So it is worth the time to pause and reflect on the letter’s message.

John Paul opens Salvifici Doloris with St. Paul’s mysterious statement to the Colossians: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” He interprets this statement as a declaration of “the power of salvific suffering”:

These words seem to be found at the end of the long road that winds through the suffering which forms part of the history of man and which is illuminated by the Word of God. These words have as it were the value of a final discovery, which is accompanied by joy. . . . The joy comes from the discovery of the meaning of suffering, and this discovery, even if it is most personally shared in by Paul of Tarsus who wrote these words, is at the same time valid for others. The Apostle shares his own discovery and rejoices in it because of all those whom it can help—just as it helped him—to understand the salvific meaning of suffering.

John Paul had visited this theme before in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis. There, he sought to show how Jesus’ earthly life “traced out” each man’s journey: Just as Christ is the way for each man, each man is the way for the Church, “the way that leads invariably through the mystery of the Incarnation and the Redemption.” But in Salvifici Doloris, John Paul began to focus more deeply on Christ’s presence within a suffering human being, saying that “man in a special fashion becomes the way for the Church when suffering enters his life.”

Suffering, the pope writes, “seems to belong to man’s transcendence.” When the suffering believer’s soul is penetrated by Christ’s presence, Jesus is able to lead “into this Kingdom of the Father, suffering man, in a certain sense through the very heart of his suffering,” because suffering “cannot be transformed and changed by a grace from outside, but from within.”

With that understanding, we can see that St. Paul’s assertion that he completes “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” does not mean the redemption Jesus won for us is incomplete. “It only means,” John Paul writes, “that the Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering.” Jesus’ suffering on the Cross is an expression of love that enables the Christian to experience his or her own suffering transformed from within so that it becomes a true communicatio, a sharing in Christ’s own love.

But it is even more than a sharing. John Paul uses the strongest language possible: Suffering in Christ “ unleashes” love—again, both in the sufferer, who is united with Christ at the most intimate level, and in the one who ministers to him in imitation of Christ.

That insight had such significance for John Paul that he would return to it fourteen years later in Fides et Ratio, writing that the chief purpose of theology “is seen to be the understanding of God’s kenosis, a grand and mysterious truth for the human mind, which finds it inconceivable that suffering and death can express a love which gives itself and seeks nothing in return.”

A prayerful reading of Salvifici Doloris shows that John Paul not only lived the Gospel of suffering himself. He left us in that deeply personal letter a road map for our own “journey to the Father” so that every sufferer might, through his suffering, become a conduit for the love of Christ.

Dawn Eden is the author of My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints and is completing a sacred theology licentiate at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. 

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