|The Thinking and Theology of John Paul II
Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán,
President of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care, gave a
lecture in July, in Aachen, Germany, on "Pain, an enigma or a
mystery?". Cardinal Barragán also visited several institutions
connected with the Grunenthal Foundation for Palliative Care. The
following is a translation from Italian of excerpts of the Cardinal's
I have been asked to expound on John Paul II's
incomparable thinking on human pain. I shall first mention briefly several
facts about the physiology of human pain. Then, given the Holy Father's
openness to all human values, it seems to me that it would be interesting
to allude to and discuss certain key thoughts on four solutions from
outside the Christian context.
The enigma of suffering
Pope John Paul II does not conceal the fact that suffering is something
complex, enigmatic and intangible that must be treated with full respect
and compassion and even with awe; but this does not justify the attempt to
understand it, since only in this way will it be possible to come to terms
He then briefly outlines the context of suffering, speaking of the vast
field of suffering and of the suffering person. He notes from the outset
that a misunderstanding of suffering can actually lead to the denial of
Pope John Paul II states: "Suffering is something which is still wider
than sickness", because there is a "distinction between physical suffering
and moral suffering" (Salvifici Doloris, n. 5).
In addition to individual suffering, there is collective suffering due
to human errors and transgressions, especially war. There are also times
when this collective suffering becomes more acute.
Suffering has a subject and it is the individual who experiences
it; yet it is not imprisoned within the person but gives rise to
solidarity with others who are suffering; for the only one who has a
special awareness of this is the person, the whole person. Thus, suffering
involves solidarity (cf. ibid., n. 8).
It is far from easy to define the cause of suffering or of the evil
connected with it. People put questions to God about its cause and
frequently reach the point of denying him when they are unable to discover
the reason for it (cf. ibid., n. 9).
One first needs to frame the enigma correctly and begin to seek its
Suffering, the Pope says, consists in feeling cut off from good. Being
cut off from good is an evil. Consequently, the cause of suffering is an
evil; so, suffering and evil can be identified with each other.
As for evil, it is a deprivation; it has no positive value in itself
and therefore cannot be a positive cause or principle, for its origin is a
mere privation. There are as many evils as things that are wanting: an
evil, according to its intensity, gives rise to pain, sorrow, depression,
disappointment and even desperation; it exists in dispersion but at the
same time entails solidarity. Since it originates in privation, the
inevitable question is: "Why did this deprivation occur, what is its
To respond, the Pope leaves the area of enigma and moves on to
that of mystery. He does not attempt to do so with the nebulous obscurity
of myth but penetrates to the very core of the Christian faith.
Mystery, in the Christian faith, is not darkness but dazzling
brightness. The etymological root of the word helps us understand
something about it: "mystery" derives from the Greek "Mυο" or "Mυєιν",
which means closing the eyes, not in the sense of going about blind, but
of closing the eyes if they are dazzled, such as occurs, for instance,
when we look directly at the sun. It is only the dazzling light, its
excessive brightness, that prevents us from seeing anything in front of
us, and it is in this that we car make out the mystery of suffering.
Furthermore, the Christian mystery is not only something contemplated
but also experienced. Only by experiencing the mystery can we penetrate it
with our minds. Only by living the mystery of Christian suffering can we
get an idea of what suffering means and, as the Pope said previously,
transcend it and overcome it. Let us now try to describe suffering.
The mystery of suffering
Three topics, among others, that the Pope addresses in his Apostolic
Letter Salvifici Doloris with regard to suffering as a mystery are:
"evil and suffering", "Christ takes on suffering", and "the value of human
suffering". To enter into the mystery, let us be guided by God himself.
The Pope enables us to penetrate into Revelation in order to move on to
ascension in the mystery.
The Holy Father tells us that in Old Testament biblical language,
suffering and evil are at first identified with each other. Thanks to the
Greek language however, a distinction is made particularly in the New
Testament between suffering and evil. Suffering is a passive or active
attitude to evil, or rather, to the lack of a good that it would be
desirable to possess (cf. ibid., n. 7).
In fact, in the Book of Job and some other Books of the Old
Testament the answer is that the cause of evil the transgression of the
natural order created by God. Suffering and transgression were held to be
the same, at least it was believed that suffering was caused by
transgression. This the opinion of Job's friends (cf. ibid., 10).
However, although God rejects this theory and approves Job's innocence
his suffering remains a mystery: not all suffering is consequential to
transgression, which is proof of Job's righteousness. It prefigures the
Lord's passion (cf. ibid., n. 11). It further affirms that
suffering is a punishment inflicted for self-correction, since good
follows evil, leading to conversion and to rebuilding goodness (cf.
The Pope now goes a step further and reaches the heart of the mystery;
in his mortal life, Christ put an end to pain by his miracles, He took
upon himself the suffering of all and bore it with full consciousness on
the Cross (cf. ibid., n, 16}.
The only answer [to the "why" of suffering] can come from the love of
God in the Cross (cf. ibid., n. 13). It is God the Father who
provides the answer to the problem of suffering: it consists in the fact
that he "gives" his Son to the world. Evil is sin and suffering, death.
With the Cross, he overcomes sin, and with his Resurrection, death (Jn
3:16; cf. ibid., n. 14).
In the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant in the Book of Isaiah, the
meaning of Christ's suffering in the passion is portrayed even more
vividly than it is in the Gospels. His suffering is redemptive; its depth
can be measured by the depth of the evil in the history of the world,
especially since the person who suffers it is God (cf. ibid., n.
Christ provides an answer to the problem of suffering by offering his
unreserved availability and compassion; his presence is effective: he
gives help and gives himself (cf. ibid., n. 28).
Through suffering, human beings are incorporated into the pain of
Christ. Suffering gives rise to love for those who suffer, a disinterested
love to help them by relieving it. This is now official and organized
through health-care institutions and the professionals who work in them,
and also through volunteers. It is a matter of a real vocation, especially
when one is united to the Church with a Christian profession.
The assistance that families give their sick relatives is important in
this area. Moreover, those who not only act to help the sick but also to
drive away a whole series of evils, those who fight hatred, violence,
cruelty and every type of physical and spiritual suffering, belong to the
same category as the Good Samaritan.
Every man and every woman should feel personally called to bear witness
to love in suffering and must not leave those who are suffering to be
cared for solely by official institutions (ibid., n.29). The
Parable of the Good Samaritan corroborates what Christ said about the Last
Judgment; "I was sick and you visited me". Christ himself is the One who
was cared for, and the one who fell into the hands of bandits is cared for
and helped. The meaning of suffering is to do good by one's suffering and
to do good to those who suffer (cf, ibid., n.30).
The Pope ends by saying that the mystery of man is revealed in Christ,
and the mystery of man is very specially connected to suffering. In Christ
the enigma of pain and death is revealed. Only in love is it possible to
find the saving response to pain. May the suffering of Mary and the saints
help us discover this response. May pain and suffering be transformed into
a source of strength for all humanity,
I think that the development of the Pope's thought climbs six steps
towards the fullness of the mystery of suffering and pain; we can sum them
up as follows:
Suffering is not in itself evil but is the effect of a negative cause.
Evil is not a positive entity but a privation. Deprivation does not demand
a positive cause but the search for its origin.
The origin of the privation is sin. The sin committed by a person
spreads by joint human liability. Sin can be eliminated through suffering
itself in a very special context of solidarity.
Only God can bestow this solidarity upon us. This gift of solidarity is
the meaning of the Incarnation and the meaning of Jesus Christ. For this
solidarity, Christ brought the elimination of sin to completion through
his suffering in his life, passion, death and Resurrection.
This divine action is an act of the Most Holy Trinity since the Eternal
Father gave his Son to humanity so that he might redeem it through the
work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Love of the Father and of
the Son, and it is only through the Love of the Spirit that we can glimpse
this mysterious, redeeming solidarity.
Through Christ's solidarity with al humanity the human pain of all
time; was suffered by Christ in his passion and his redeeming death. Thus,
human pain and suffering are transformed from something negative into
something positive, into a source of life, as it were because they become
Each person in his or her suffering is united with the suffering of
Christ, and thus this suffering mysteriously becomes a source of life and
resurrection. Pain and suffering are the door to the encounter with Christ
and in him to the experience of his presence as life and resurrection,
through the work of the Spirit of Love, who is the Holy Spirit This is what
Our Lady, the Virgin Mary was the first to do, and with her, all the
This definitive destruction of suffering through suffering leads us to
destroy our actual suffering with the whole panoply of means at our disposal,
as in the case of the Good Samaritan.
The Pope thus situates us in the heart of the mystery whose light dazzles
us. For we find ourselves in intimacy with the Blessed Trinity, in the loving reality of the unity of the Triune
God and in the depths of this mystery. This is the central mystery of the
entire Christian religion, not in the abstract nor in an immensely remote
way, but in a closeness present in human history into whose temporal
dimensions eternity bursts, through the historical Incarnation of the Word
with his birth, life, passion, death and Resurrection.
This is a Trinitarian and Christological solidarity in which the
absolute fullness of life is attained through death. It is called "cross"
and "resurrection". We find ourselves at the heart of the Christian
mystery, inaccessible except through an experience of it: no one who does
not know it can prove its efficacy or find its solution.
The solution to the mystery of evil is not only discovered through
theological exposition but also by experiencing that something which, if
steadily gazed at, darkens because of its excessive brightness yet is very
real - we can say the most real reality -, for it is the only way to
In this way we are within the nucleus of salvation. This is the heart
of Christianity. Tertullian said: "Credo quia ineptum". By
experiencing relief from evil through suffering, and through that
cruelest form of suffering which sums up all imaginable forms of
suffering, the Cross, this "ineptum", becomes "aptum", the
most just and rational that we can imagine, for it is the only way to
This is why the mystery of pain shifts from pain in itself to the
mystery of solidarity. Solidarity, as the foundation of the whole of
existence, is not only sympathy with all, a way of being socially
committed and aware that we all belong to the same race, culture,
nationality, etc., but is also the experiencing of a bond with all other
human beings so deeply within ourselves that it is not a qualification
that comes to us as soon as we exist but constitutes our existence itself.
Solidarity belongs to divinized human life as a gift received which
takes part in the mystery itself of God's very life. The life of God is
infinitely perfect in each one of the divine Persons through the internal
solidarity between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This
infinite solidarity is infinite Love, which is the Holy Spirit who has
been poured out into our hearts, an infinite Love that is God himself. The
mystery of suffering is contained in the mystery of Love, in the mystery
of the Spirit.
In this way, the mystery of suffering-love enters into the very
constitution of God incarnate, the Son made flesh through the work of the
Holy Spirit. Since Christ is the most intimate model for every person, the
Holy Spirit, the Love of God and redemptive suffering enter into the
actual objective, and we might say ontological, constitution of humanity.
In contrast to cold objectivity, however, it is something that indeed belongs to the objectivity of our
being, but with the maximum loving subjectivity, since it is and depends
upon our free will in such a way that we can accept or reject it. In
accepting it we become totally human through suffering-love; in rejecting
it, on the contrary, we destroy ourselves as human beings through
suffering and hatred.
The Pope is aware of the difficulty of reasoning in this way and
therefore tells us that the reality of suffering in solidarity should only
be understood through the Resurrection. From our solidarity with the
essence of life which is the Risen Christ, we can understand our loving
solidarity with Christ suffering on the Cross; just as the Risen Christ
includes in his Resurrection the resurrection of humanity, of each and
every one of us, so too the suffering of Christ contains the suffering and
pain of each and every one of us. There is no separation between the
Resurrection and the Cross but convergence, both in Christ and in us; the
Pope says, therefore, that Christ contains the signs of his wounds in his
One can thus realize and understand what would otherwise be an
untenable paradox, scandal and folly: the Cross is glorious; having been
the evil most feared as total death, it becomes the glorious beginning of
the whole of the second creation. The nothing from which this new world of
happiness or the definitive Paradise flows is not an innocent nothingness
but a guilty nothingness that is the greatest evil - sin - which leads
definitively to the Cross. And from the Cross, not by virtue of the Cross
but by virtue of the Father's omnipotence and the Spirit's solidarity and
Love, the Incarnate Word recreates within us the authentic Adam, the man
of truth, the model planned by God from all eternity so that we might be
Love is the only key to deciphering the enigma of pain and suffering:
love that can transform nothingness into full reality. The lack of
meaning, the lack of direction, the radical anticulture, contradiction,
death: in a fullness of meaning, of orientation, in an ascendant culture,
in joyous affirmation, in life: folly and stupidity, in what is wisest and
most sensible, it is the intimate solidarity of love triumphant that
raises, in loving solidarity with the most atrocious suffering that kills.
It is victory over death.
Thus, John Paul II leads us to scrutinize the meaning of human
suffering in a mysterious and dazzling way, and which is also the only
valid perspective; at last, the enigma becomes mystery. It is a joyful,
shining mystery and full of happiness. It is the paradox that returns to
being logical through the Omnipotent Love of God the Father who is his
Spirit, and whose effectiveness is to be found in the culmination of human
history when he grants to us the close solidarity of all peoples in the
Pasch of the Incarnate Word.