Theology of Divine Mercy, Conversion, and Human Suffering
One of the beautiful things about the Catholic Church is its willingness to ask tough questions in pursuit of the truth. Popes, theologians, and saints have never been afraid to ask the hard questions about human suffering. The tradition of the Church is full of people pursuing answers to the hardest questions about the meaning of life, suffering, and mercy. Saint John Paul II asked some difficult questions in his encyclical, Salvifici Doloris, and found answers through Sacred Scripture and his own experience.
“Within each form of suffering endured by man, and at the same time at the basis of the whole world of suffering, there inevitably arises the question: why? It is a question about the cause, the reason, and equally, about the purpose of suffering, and, in brief, a question about its meaning. Not only does it accompany human suffering, but it seems even to determine its human content, what makes suffering precisely human suffering.” – Pope Saint John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris
Saint John Paul II was no stranger to human suffering, having lost his parents as a youth and having experienced the persecution of the Holocaust in Poland. Because he wasn’t afraid to ask the difficult questions, he was able to find immense hope in the Gospel message of the redemptive suffering of Christ. John Paul II noted that our ability to ponder why we suffer, and the fact that a lack of answers bothers us, is part of what makes us human.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux was another saint who experienced the depths of suffering, yet maintained her faith until the end. Thérèse was tempted toward doubt and despair as she suffered from tuberculosis in her early twenties. However, instead of despair she chose to hope against hope and trust in the reality of God’s presence that she knew deep down. God provided her the grace she needed to persevere through the doubt, and now she intercedes on our behalf in heaven.
What John Paul and Thérèse had in common was that, when faced with human suffering, they didn’t run from it. Rather, they embraced it, turned toward God, and allowed themselves to be transformed by it. This meant that they had to ask some tough questions, and even ask them directly to God. By embracing their darkness and turning toward God with their questions, they could be purified and transformed by the renewal of their hearts and minds. This process was painful at times, but God provided them with the grace to persevere and grow in faith, hope, and love, as he will do for us.
The Church, while it always seeks to answer the profound questions of human existence, also acknowledges that we are limited in what we can understand on earth. While the Church formulates answers in the form of doctrines, the Church also leaves a lot of room for the mysteries of our existence that humans have always pondered and will continue to ponder to the end of time. As John Paul reminds us, it is in pondering these mysteries that we realize our humanity. It is in this experiential realm of mystery that Thérèse and John Paul were able to find hope in the midst of their darkness.
Do you ask the difficult questions in the midst of your suffering? Do you know where to look for answers?
At the Avila Institute, we ask the tough questions and find answers in the tradition of the Church. There are a couple resources you can check out to learn more about suffering and its role in your life.
- Divine Intimacy Radio: You can listen weekly as Dan and Melissa discuss various different resources that can help you in your spiritual life. In a recent podcast they discussed the topic of suffering with Dr. Ronda Chervin.
- Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering by Dr. Ronda Chervin. This book has been discussed on Divine Intimacy Radio and is a great resource for those pondering the reasons why we suffer.
- The Avila Institute: This coming Fall, Dr. Gama is teaching a course in the Graduate Program titled Theology of Divine Mercy, Conversion, and Suffering. You can learn more and apply by visiting our website. Students in this course will read from St. John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris as well as St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul, the diary of Saint Faustina, and the writings of Saint Teresa of Calcutta. This course will explore the meaning of mercy, conversion, and suffering in the Christian life. To see other upcoming courses click here.
Art: Photograph of St. Thérèse: Gravure de “Sainte Thérèse de l’Enfant Jésus, Histoire d’une âme écrite par elle-même, Lisieux, Office central de Lisieux (Calvados), & Bar-le-Duc, Imprimerie Saint-Paul, 1937, édition 1940.” PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons. Cover of Avoiding Bitterness in Suffering by Dr. Ronda Chervin, used with permission.