February 16, 2009

St. Paul on the salvific meaning of suffering

By Brian Pizzalato *

“I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:19b-20).


How many of us think of the sufferings we personally endure, and the sufferings others endure, as being “crucified with Christ?” Don’t we more often consider suffering meaningless?


How many of us, like St. Paul, can say we “rejoice in our sufferings?” (Romans 5:3; cf. Colossians 1:24). Aren’t we more likely to think that St. Paul is a bit too masochistic?


However, we must ask ourselves, is it more likely that St. Paul got it wrong, or that we perhaps are not seeing things with the eyes of faith, and St. Paul has something extremely profound to teach us?


St. Paul, as we know, is someone who inflicted profound suffering on others, including death, before he was confronted by the Lord of glory on the road to Damascus. What is often overlooked is that he knew within the first few days of this encounter “what he will have to suffer for my name” (Acts 9:16). He could have said “no” to the risen Lord: “I will not serve. I will not suffer for your name’s sake.” However, he did not flinch from the task of proclaiming “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23).


And suffer for this he did indeed. He has had “far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death. Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from the gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).


Is he just complaining about these sufferings? Not at all. Pope John Paul II tells us why St. Paul talks so much about suffering: “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” (Salvifici Doloris 1).


Suffering is nothing less than a participation in the salvific suffering of Christ. Pope John Paul II tells us, “In the cross of Christ not only is Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed” (SD 19, original emphasis).


By “the sharing of his sufferings,” according to Paul, is how he is “being conformed to his death…” (Philippians 3:10). It is only in being conformed to his death that he “may attain the resurrection from the dead” (ibid. 3:11).


This does not only apply to St. Paul’s own salvation, but his suffering and ours, can lead to the salvation of others. “Therefore, I bear with everything for the sake of those who are chosen, so that they may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, together with eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10).


In another beautiful passage in 2 Corinthians, St. Paul says, “For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (4:17). In Romans he also tells us, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed for us” (8:18).


How can any of this possibly be the case? Because in baptism we are united to Christ, becoming a member of his very body. Remember St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord. Jesus asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). The suffering of the church under Saul’s persecution is mystically united to the Jesus.


St. Paul is well aware of Jesus’ call for everyone to “…deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Jesus calls us to nothing less than what he himself has done. He denied himself and took up his cross. He “emptied himself…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7a, 8). It is exactly because of this that “God greatly exalted him…” (ibid. 2:9a).


All of this is why St. Paul can say, “Even if I am poured out like a libation upon the sacrificial service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you. In the same way you also should rejoice and share your joy with me” (2:17-18).


This is precisely why he urges you and me, “by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).


Pope John Paul II sums up what St. Paul teaches: “Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ.” (SD 19).


Printed with permission from the Diocese of Duluth.

Brian Pizzalato is the Director of Catechesis, R.C.I.A. & Lay Apostolate, Diocese of Duluth and is a faculty member of the Philosophy department of the Maryvale Institute, Birmingham, England.

Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).

Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.

Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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