When Pope John Paul II returned to the Vatican on May 29, 1994, after having been hospitalized for weeks in Gemelli de Roma Hospital, he taught us the meaning of his suffering at an Angelus Address. He recalled the suffering that he endured with his attempted assassination on May 13, 1981 and said, “Through Mary I would like to express today my gratitude for this gift of suffering, associated once again with this Marian month of May. I want to appreciate this gift. I understand that it is a necessary gift. The Pope should be in the hospital Gemelli; he should be absent from this window for four weeks; in the same way he suffered thirteen years ago, he should suffer again this year.”
I have meditated, I have reflected over all of this during my hospitalization. And I have found again at my side the great figure of Cardinal Wyszynski…At the start of my Pontificate he told me, ‘If the Lord has called you, you should take the Church of Christ to the Third Millennium’…And I have understood that I should lead the Church of Christ to this Third Millennium with prayer, with various initiatives, but I have seen that this is not enough: I needed to lead it with suffering – with the attempt on my life thirteen years ago and with this new suffering. Why now? Why this year? Why in this year of the Family? Precisely now, because the family is being threatened, because it is being attacked. The Pope should be attacked, the Pope should suffer, so that all the families and the whole world can see that there is a gospel – I could say, a superior gospel – the gospel of suffering, with which we are to prepare the future, the Third Millennium of families, of all families and of each family. I wanted to add these reflections in my first encounter with you…at the end of this Marian month, because I owe this gift of suffering to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I thank her. I understand it was important to have this debate before the powerful of the world. I need to meet again with the powerful of the world, and I have to speak up. With what arguments? I am left with this argument of suffering. And I would like to tell them: understand, understand why the Pope has returned to the hospital, why has he suffered again; understand it, reflect on this one more time” (See no.4).
Pope John Paul II’s entire life was a life of suffering. He was the youngest of three children. His sister, Olga, had died before he was born. His mother died before he was 9, and his older brother, a doctor, died when he was 12. His father died when he was 20. After that he no longer had a family and depended upon God alone.
His suffering continued after the loss of his family. He lived through the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of his homeland. He was struck by a German military truck and left for dead, but miraculously survived. After the war he suffered from the Communist’s oppression of Poland.
During his pontificate he spent many weeks at the Gemelli Hospital, which he humorously referred to as “Vatican number three” after St. Peter’s Square and Castel Gandolfo. He was hospitalized for many reasons: the wounds from his assassination attempt, a cytomegalovirus infection, an intestinal tumor, a dislocated right shoulder, a fractured right femur, an appendectomy and a tracheotomy.
Cardinal Dziwisz, his secretary, said that the Pope “endured physical pain and illness with great serenity and patience-indeed, I’d have to say, with great Christian manliness. And meanwhile, he went on doggedly fulfilling his mission. But the thing that struck me most was that he never burdened others with his physical ailments.”
The Meaning of Human Suffering
The experience of his own personal suffering and the suffering of mankind led the Pope to explain its meaning in an apostolic letter. In 1984 he wrote Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering). He later explained the meaning of human suffering in two papal audiences in December of 1997 and explained that suffering has redemptive value because in Jesus Christ. “Pain receives a new life, which elevates it from simple and negative passivity to positive collaboration in the project of salvation,” and that suffering “is not wasted energy, because it is transformed by divine love.”When he was recovering from surgery, the Pope said, “Restitution must be made. How much our Lord Jesus had to suffer.”
Christ’s sufferings satisfied God’s justice and mercy for the original sin of Adam and Eve and all the sins of mankind. He took on our sins and paid the price for them by laying down his life for us and meriting for us the reward of eternal life with him. Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn. 15:13). Jesus accepted his suffering voluntarily and freely laid down his life for us. He said, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.” (Jn 10:18).
During his visit to the Czech Republic in 1997, the Pope addressed all those who suffer saying, “You are a hidden force contributing powerfully to the life of the Church: by your sufferings you have a share in the redemption of the world. You too…have been placed by God as a pillar in the temple of the Church so as to become one of its most powerful supports.”
Pope John Paul II’s explanation of suffering is consistent with St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, in which he wrote, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church.” (Col. 1:24).
These words of St. Paul are an invitation for us to offer our sufferings generously to Christ and with Christ for the good of all the Church. It is not that the sacrifice of Christ was left incomplete, but that within the history of salvation his sacrifice is made present with the loving cooperative suffering of the members of His Mystical Body, the Church. This suffering in love can be victorious over evil.
In the conclusion his Apostolic Letter the Pope wrote, “We ask precisely you who are weak to become a source of strength for the Church and humanity. In the terrible battle between the forces of good and evil, revealed to our eyes by our modern world, may your suffering in union with the Cross of Christ be victorious!” (no. 31).
The Pope called suffering a “gift” and said, “I owe this gift of suffering to the Blessed Virgin Mary.” He also thanked her for her protection in saving his life from the assassination attempt of May 13, 1981. This was the anniversary date of the first apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal. Four days later from the hospital, he said, “Priest and victim, I offer my suffering for all the Church and world.” He later made a pilgrimage to Fatima and placed the bullet from his assassination attempt in the crown of the statue of Our Lady of Fatima in thanksgiving for her protection.
His Final Years
In the final years of his pontificate, Pope John Paul II suffered from debilitating Parkinson’s disease. The disease did not affect his mind but partially disabled his mobility and speech and altered his physical appearance. Nevertheless, he continued all of the duties and fulfilled all of the responsibilities of his office.
He did not hide his physical weaknesses, but showed them to the whole world as a sign of contradiction to the false values that it gives to power, vanity, pleasure and appearances. In this way, he imitated Christ carrying his Cross towards his crucifixion and martyrdom on Calvary.
Cardinal Dziwisz described the Pope’s last illness as “one long martyrdom from start to finish. John Paul II suffered terribly in his body. But he also suffered in his spirit and bodily afflictions forced him to cut back on, or even to suspend, activities that were part of his mission as universal shepherd.”
Cardinal Dziwisz said that the opening words of the Pope’s Will were “I wish to follow Him.” Because of that he said that the Pope, “understood that life is a gift that has to be lived fully to the end. That’s why he was able to accept everything God willed for his life.”