Saint John Paul II’s pontificate was marked by many things which contributed to both his personal popularity and the effectiveness of his evangelism – charisma, courage, and strong communication skills were foremost amongst these. The enormity of his personality though, has sometimes obscured one part of his life that has just as great a power to convince and attract people to the Faith, and what for me truly marks him out as a saint – the suffering he endured, and the steadfast love of God that helped him endure it.
Saint John Paul’s mother died when he was just eight years old, and his only remaining sibling (an elder sister had died before he was born), Edmund, died three years later. By the time he reached the age of twenty, his father, whose faith had so inspired the young Karol Wojtyla, also died, leaving him an orphan by 1941. On top of this, the Nazis had invaded and occupied Poland in 1939, and during their occupancy he lost many friends to the concentration camps. It was at this time that he began training for the priesthood, inspired by the example of his father’s dedicated prayer life, and started attending an underground seminary run by the Archbishop of Krakow.
In 1944, a year before the Germans finally left Poland, Wojtyla was hit by a truck, and it was during his recovery in hospital that his vocation to the priesthood was confirmed. In 1946, he was finally ordained priest, and left for the Angelicum in Rome to defend his doctoral thesis on Saint John of the Cross. He returned to Poland in 1948, and by 1954 had earned another doctorate, this time from the JagiellonianUniversity in Krakow. However, he did not receive his degree until 1957, as the Communist forces that now occupied Poland had the theology department shut down.
As well as enduring years of the Communist regime, where as the eventual Archbishop of Krakow he would be routinely followed and have his apartments bugged, and have to tolerate the activities of the Church being suppressed in general, he also had to witness the tragic aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, where the careful documents drafted by himself and many others were used by opportunist liberal movements throughout the Church to lay waste to much of what he held dear.
Finally, he was raised to the pontificate in 1978, and the following year visited his native Poland, setting off the beginning of a homegrown uprising against the Communist state, and providing the impulse for the Solidarity movement, simply by invoking the power of the Holy Spirit to liberate humankind and awakening the latent faith amongst the Polish people – the impact he made would prove to be greatly influential in bringing down Communist regimes across the Eastern Bloc. In 1981 though, at the age of sixty, he was shot, in an assassination attempt by a Turkish fascist, and lost nearly three-quarters of his blood before finally recovering. He would later visit his assailant in prison, offering him forgiveness and friendship.
Later in life, after all his travails and all the achievements of a wide-ranging and greatly influential papacy, where he attempted (and to some extent managed) to correct the aberrations of the post-conciliar era, establishing the principle of a ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ that would draw people to reassess and re-appreciate the conciliar documents in the light of Catholic tradition, he succumbed to Parkinson’s disease, losing a great deal of his mobility, and finally his ability to speak. This was a life full of achievement and industry, but also a life marked by great suffering. How did he endure it, and what does this have to do with his sainthood?
John Paul himself provided the answer in an apostolic letter written in 1984, entitled Salvifici Doloris, where he outlined the Christian response to the problem of pain and suffering. In this, he realised that our suffering will always remain inscrutable to some degree, and to attempt to eliminate the mystery is not only naïve, but also undermines the genuine pains endured by so many over the ages. Instead, he examined a variety of features of suffering, and the concomitant responses that the Faith provides. Amongst these are, for example, the idea that suffering can humble us, and even transform us – here Saint John Paul draws on the examples of the many saints throughout history whose conversions occurred due to a period of profound suffering; it is only when they (and by implication, we) are brought to a low ebb, that we can see what is really essential in life.
Ultimately though, the key Christian response to suffering comes in Jesus Christ Himself, who enters into our experience, sharing and bearing all the trials that we have to face, and enduring them obediently, even unto death. He does this for no other reason than that He loves:
‘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 the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross constantly takes its beginning. The Cross of Christ has become a source from which flow rivers of living water. In it we must also pose anew the question about the meaning of suffering, and read in it, to its very depths, the answer to this question.’
Salvifici Doloris, 18.
In His Passion and death, and in the whole of His life, which He lived in patient and loving obedience to the Father, Jesus showed a way through suffering and evil, a way characterised by self-giving love, which is wholly concerned with the other. When this love has taken one’s heart captive, good can be wrought from evil, and suffering, rather than defeating a person, can serve to purify that love and make it shine ever brighter outwards into the world around. John Paul realised this, and in committing his life completely to Jesus, in deciding to follow Him and any crosses that may come his way thereafter, his heart was filled with that same love. It was this that enabled him to act with such courage and exhibit such joy in the face of so many trials and grievances.
Paradoxically, in opening oneself up to Love in this way, one becomes even more susceptible to suffering – love is costly, and it is easier, safer, to shut oneself away, protecting oneself from the potential hurt that comes from opening the heart up to the world. However, to make oneself secure in this way is to become less than fully human, and it is precisely this attitude of self-protection and fear that (amongst other things) Jesus came to deliver us from – ‘perfect love casts out fear’, as Saint John wrote.
Our response to the love of God shown to us in Christ must instead be to ‘open wide our arms’ to Him, as Saint John Paul said himself upon becoming pope. We must take the plunge, open the door (c.f.; Revelation 3:20) and let the Love of God in – if we do so, we will be transformed; we will be made free, and introduced to a new, more profound and lasting joy, but we will not be thereby made more secure. John Paul cites the example of the parable of the Good Samaritan, to show how this Gospel of Love calls us to show compassion, to suffer with others, and that in this making ourselves available to the other, we find the true existential meaning of suffering:
‘Following the parable of the Gospel, we could say that suffering, which is present under so many different forms in our human world, is also present in order to unleash love in the human person, that unselfish gift of one’s “I” on behalf of other people, especially those who suffer. The world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions. The person who is a “neighbour” cannot indifferently pass by the suffering of another: this in the name of fundamental human solidarity, still more in the name of love of neighbour. He must “stop”, “sympathize”, just like the Samaritan of the Gospel parable. The parable in itself expresses a deeply Christian truth, but one that at the same time is very universally human. It is not without reason that, also in ordinary speech, any activity on behalf of the suffering and needy is called “Good Samaritan” work.’
Due to our union with Christ, we can see all our suffering as being transfigured by that sacramental bond, and can therefore offer up those sufferings to Him in order to realise that union (c.f.; Colossians 1:24). Also though, as part of Christ’s Body, the suffering of others can be seen in a new light – as one that prompts us to pass on the gift of love that we have received in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. If our hearts have been truly awoken and liberated by the love of God, then we cannot but see the suffering of others as an occasion to spread and share that love, recognising the solidarity we have with each and every person, a solidarity which otherwise is so often sadly ignored.
It is this transformative love of and for Christ that enabled Pope John Paul II to live the life of heroic sanctity that he did, and enabled him to not just endure but triumph over the sufferings that came his way. By treating each trial as an opportunity to either share the love he knew, or to himself be made more perfect in love, he was able to grow ever closer to God, and receive the peace and joy that comes with that closeness. It was this love, peace and joy that spilled out into the lives of those around him, and touched so many of the people that he met.
Love hurts, and following Christ is costly, but as we look to the examples of people like Saint John Paul II, we see that if we are not to be overcome by the suffering of the world, then we have to look for answers not in a theorem, but in a person – Jesus Christ. Only by giving ourselves completely to Him, and allowing the rivers of living water that pour ceaselessly from His Sacred Heart to enter us, can we face suffering with anything other than resignation (if we face it at all). The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us that ultimately Love will triumph, and the lives of saints like John Paul II provide us with plentiful examples of how this triumphant Love can transform the lives of those who follow Him.