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

Howard Kainz

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.

  • Patrick K

    This is not masochism at all, you can see it in every human endeavor. If you want to understand higher mathematics, you first have to submit yourself to the boring and mechanical rules of arithmetic and algebra. Then, having undergone the initiation, having purified your mind, you can contemplate wondrously pure and ornate vistas.

    Similarly in physical exercise, it is initially painful but eventually gives one strength for great feats. Building muscles is painful because it actually destroys old muscle structure so that it can be replaced with something more powerful.

    I think spiritual exercise is like the exercise of our body and mind. We have to destroy all of our sinful inclinations in order to be made anew according to God’s light. We perceive this as painful, but it is really a purification, a pruning of all of our selfish, sinful branches, so that God’s glorious flower might grow upon us.

  • Manfred

    An excellent column, Howard. I thought you might quote the next line from Luke: “Think ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you,no; but separation. For there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided: three against two and two against three.” (Luke 12, 51-52). I think this describes the state of the Church today as always. BTW, it may sound self-serving, but I believe, looking back, that following the traditional Faith in marriage or single (no divorce, no contraception, no abortion, no cheating, no lying, struggling to pay bills and tuitions) can produce enough suffering by itself

  • Grump

    Manfred, I’m with you, bud.

    A quarrelsome wife is like
    a constant dripping on a rainy day – Proverbs 27-15

  • Graham

    Not always something we want to hear, but necessary nonetheless. The column was worth it for the Flannery O’Connor quote alone. I chose Thomas More as my confirmation name (RCIA) for many reasons. But Ms. O’Connor makes me laugh — and that’s heavy lifting these days. Thank you Prof. Kainz.

  • Thomas C. Coleman, Jr.

    Edifying colmun, indeed, Dr. Kainz. Please foregive my poiniting out that the guillotine had not yet been invented at the of St. Thomas More’s maryrdom and that his asking the executioner to hit the right spot was not chiding but an understandable plea for mercy since the axe men were often bribed to make one clean cut rather than draw out the agony. For us St. Thomas is a symbol of courage, but it might be helpful to remember that others keep in mind that he himslef had ordered the burning of Protestants.

  • Martin Campbell

    I don’t think that Jacinta has been canonised by the Church as of 24.03.12 although it is only a matter of time.

  • patty1930

    A thought-provoking column. Thank you.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Thomas C. Coleman and Martin Campbell: Thanks for the corrections. English guillotines! I must have been writing that late at night.

  • tz

    Ought then I should pray that you get some horrendous, disfiguring, untreatable, slow, excruciating disease?

    I wouldn’t engage in calumny or detraction against muslims so easily – most sundays the women taking our Lord’s body and blood could learn modesty from them. And we are not without sin, most muslims consider terrorism as most catholics consider abuse. When we massacre innocent men, women, and children, we call it ‘collateral damage’ although it is a war crime under treaties we signed. Like torture. But they become less than human, we look at the hadjis, towelheads, the way abortionists look at fetuses.

    But to return… Suffering’s purpose is to absorb and destroy evil that would otherwise continue or afflict an innocent or someone who would fall. We rarely know the ultimate target, only that we stepped in front and took the bullet. But we redeem some part of the world with our participation in the cross.

  • Howard Kainz

    @tz: “When we massacre innocent men, women, and children….” Who is the “we” here? You? Me? We Catholics? We Catholics go around massacring men, women, and children, just like Jihadists? Or when these things happen, we Catholics are to blame? You’re bringing in “red herrings” to the topic.

  • Bob Vacin

    The reality of redemptive suffering is so central to our faith. Our son, Danny, was in a terrible auto accident and suffered severe brain injury. Our good Carmelite Sisters at Port Tobacco in Southern Maryland helped me weather this storm w/Danny. Mother Mary Joseph told me that we don’t know the God’s use of Danny’s suffering for the good of the mystical body. Her words were just a very practical orientation for redemptive suffering.

  • Tom Perna

    Professor Kainz – a terrific piece and a good reminder of the importance of suffering. This hit home for me since my father has suffered from Crohn’s disease for as long as I can remember. I have always tried to tell my Dad that his sufferings although painful are beneficial. It’s a work in progress for all of us. I was once told that Bl. John Paul II in the months leading up to his death did not take pain killers. He offered up his pain and suffering to Christ.

    Just to clarify one point you made – you mentioned St. Ignatius in the third paragraph. You are speaking of St. Ignatius of Antioch, correct?

  • Howard Kainz

    @Tom Perna: That quotation is from St. Ignatius of Loyola.

  • Paula

    Having to ‘listen’ to the morose ramblings of Americans on the internet, everywhere you turn, daily, is – one truly can believe very often, a penance too much to bear.

    Were it not for the grace of God one would lose one’s marbles altogether.

    How many souls have I saved since the inception of the WWW.

    My star shall shine so brightly in the firmament.

  • Tara Lynn

    LOL Paula.

    Give the blunt axe any day.

  • Caoimhin


    I too find difficulty with the demonising of Muslims.

    If you learned to ‘think’ as much with the heart as with your good Emeritus head – you’d see how hypocritical, at the very least, you’ve been in this.

    But then it’s not the ‘learned’ to whom such things are revealed.

    I’ve had Muslims in good Catholic Ireland here ask how some people who go to church – to Mass; could be so disrespectful to Jesus – Isa, whom they consider a great prophet, when we believe Jesus part of the Godhead itself.

    As y’all say in America, “Go figure !”