Catholicism and Suffering

When a Catholic goes into a Protestant church, he will often notice a cross or crosses, but usually without a corpus. Catholic churches almost always have a crucifix; Orthodox churches also, but sometimes two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional. Some Catholic churches are noted for very graphic depictions of the wounds and suffering features of Christ crucified. This may give us an indication of the uniquely Catholic perspective on suffering.

Reading the lives of many Catholic saints, one finds them not only accepting suffering, or resigned to suffering, but desirous of it, seeking it proactively, asking for more. For example, the three little children to whom Our Lady appeared at Fatima, began to seek suffering, after Mary revealed to them that “many souls go to hell because there is no one to sacrifice themselves and pray for them.”

Little Jacinta (now Bl. Jacinta) outdid the other children in seeking voluntary sacrifices and suffering, until Our Lady appeared to her and told her to moderate some of her practices. St. Ignatius advised his followers, “Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings.”

A psychiatrist would see masochism in such desire for suffering. But masochism is a love of suffering for its own sake, while the sufferings sought by the saints are motivated by love, by a desire to join with Christ in the redemptive suffering that brings the graces of conversion to sinners, and perseverance to the weak.

St. Paul viewed not only his preaching but his suffering as his essential contribution to building up the Mystical Body of Christ: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col. 1:24).

We are steeped in the mystery of the Mystical Body of Christ, where every member is connected in spirit with every other, and one Christian can take it upon himself to pay the penalty for a quagmire of sin that another unwary Christian or “anonymous Christian” has gotten himself into. As Jesus brought about atonement and salvation, so also individual Christians by suffering can atone for the sins of others. Some visionaries among the saints were even given the gift of seeing the fruits of their voluntary sufferings – sinners being converted, souls in purgatory being released.

      The Isenheim Altarpiece (detail) by Matthias Grunewald, c. 1515

St. Faustina relays to us this astounding counter-intuitive insight, given to her by Jesus: “If the angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion, and the other is suffering.” Blessed Dina Belanger also said that angels, if they could desire anything extra, would desire to suffer.

Angels, envious of our suffering? In contrast, aren’t most of us envious of the angels? We visualize them as being created and offered the choice of either spending eternity with God or setting up their own kingdom of darkness. And we think, what an easy choice. No suffering. “OK, I’ll take the God option.” But apparently it wasn’t all that easy, and many angels opted for their own special place in the dark kingdom.

The only explanation for this angelic envy is the overpowering force of love, which drives angels as well as humans to want to share in the sufferings of those they love. Jesus himself offers the paradigmatic example of this phenomenon. He sighs: “I have a baptism wherewith I am to be baptized: and how am I straitened until it be accomplished” (Lk. 12:50). Jesus looks forward to, and is even impatient for, his opportunity to undergo his baptism of blood for the salvation of mankind.

One of the greatest contrasts of Christianity with Islam is in the comparative ideas of “martyrdom” in the two religions. “Heroism” means something completely different in these two religions. For Christians, it is the heroism of suffering. In the beatitudes, Jesus tells his hearers, “Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake” (Mt. 5:11).

Thus St. Lawrence, sentenced to be fried on a gridiron for his faith, not only accepts his fate, but jokes with his executioners to turn him over because his body is now well done on one side. And St. Thomas More amiably chides his executioner with the axe to be careful to make a clean cut at the right place in his neck. Christian martyrs in the eyes of the world offer a picture of weakness, “turning the other cheek,” not retaliating, often praying for their assailants.

Muslim martyrdom, although it theoretically is just the “sacrifice of one’s life for the truth of Islam,” in practice largely involves fighting and killing non-believers. Current examples often include hundreds of strange, irrational, and inhuman massacres of men, women and children by suicide bombers, simply for being “unbelievers.” The greatness and heroism of such martyrs is gauged not on the basis of how much suffering is inflicted on them unjustly, but how much suffering they can cause for themselves in the unnatural act of suicide, and also for the enemies of Islam, until these enemies are forced to realize the superior dignity and power of Islam.

One of the young girls in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” thinks about herself: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

This probably captures the way many of us heroism-challenged Christians feel. But martyrdom is hardly ever quick. And suffering of any kind, even for the highest causes, usually seems long.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.