Making Sense Out of Innocent Suffering

“I feel that abortion is often the moral, ethical choice. There are many situations where an abortion is an unselfish, loving, motherly act that prevents the child from a short or long life of pain and suffering, abuse, and even rejection, fear, etc.” 

This was a comment I received on Facebook during an intense debate about abortion and the value of human life, including when life begins and what “quality of life” entails.  Initially shocked, I had to take a step back and evaluate what’s going on in our society.  The biggest attack against the beauty we, as Catholics, carry in the concept of redemptive suffering is regarding innocent suffering – that of children not yet at the age of reason.

When Sarah was born with Apert Syndrome, and Ben and I immediately learned that her first surgery would entail cutting open her skull and inserting a distraction device, I was faced with anger.  Why would God permit a baby to suffer in such a horrific way?  I couldn’t answer that question at the time.  But now I can.

Blessed Carlo Gnocchi, an Italian priest who volunteered to become a military chaplain during World War II, wrote an entire treatise on this concept, entitled, “The Pedagogy of Innocent Suffering.”  Because he witnessed the horrors of war, especially among the young boys he cared for, he developed this theology that beautifully and carefully explains why suffering children are essentially living icons of Christ crucified.

Bl. Gnocchi begins to lay the foundation by sharing that all of us are called to suffer for two basic reasons – to cancel the debts we owe because of our sins (and Original Sin) and to participate in the redemptive act that leads us to “an indefectible life.”  Children especially are “called to suffer,” he continued, because “their suffering is in relation and proportion to the capacity and purity of their sacrifice…”

In likely his most poignant point in this treatise, Bl. Gnocchi wrote that “if suffering, according to the Gospel, reveals the presence of Christ in a man, in no one is this made more transparent, clear, evident and immediate, than in the child…Therefore, to a child who suffers from a disability, deficiency, mutilation, poverty, sickness, ignorance, abandonment, or from any other cause, our internal disposition or external attitude should be dominated by a profound feeling of respect and veneration.  I would almost say that it should be of worship.”

These are extreme words for such a concept as this!  We might be tempted to believe that Bl. Gnocchi is encouraging idolatry of such children.  But, in fact, he is merely clarifying that in each child who suffers, we should see the face of Jesus.  I’ve seen this with my daughter, Sarah, who is visibly different because of her craniofacial condition.  When people encounter her, they are almost always changed in an immediate and positive way.  They speak of hope and eternity.  Their eyes glisten.  I believe it’s because Sarah is one of those about whom Bl. Gnocchi wrote – she is revealing Jesus to everyone she meets.

This is why innocent suffering isn’t only inevitable or necessary, but it’s important and valuable.  That’s quite a radical difference in viewpoint from the secular thought that abortion is merciful in the case of when a disabled child might not live long or may suffer from a “poor quality of life,” whatever that is.  Truthfully, this train of thought does not take into account the beauty of redemptive suffering – yes, even and especially in the smallest of children, the purest of hearts.  It is in and through them that the sacrificial Lamb becomes more apparent.

We tend to forget that suffering can be a gift.  But when we meet children with disabilities or various afflictions, we are confronted with the reality that suffering was not intended in God’s original plan, yet He sanctified it – in part, through these children and through us.

Bl. Gnocchi furthered his reasoning by encouraging parents and religious educators to gently guide all children, even from a young age, to understand how they should “not keep their pain for themselves, but rather to give their pain as a gift to others.”  We shouldn’t assume that children aren’t equipped to “understand, live and act out these delicate truths” of redemptive suffering.  The ultimate goal is to translate the potential of this immense grace by teaching our children that all sacrifices – both great and small – are heroic acts of love.

Without the action behind the principle, that is, the work of mercy behind the theology of innocent suffering, the potential to expiate the sins of the world becomes null.  Bl. Gnocchi reiterated what we already know, that “the suffering of children does not have in itself the value of grace unless it is intimately inserted into the sufferings of Christ.”

I wonder how our lives would change – how the world would change – if we all lived this way!  Think of how many of our children would achieve sanctity quickly by this way of understanding and living their suffering as a gift to Jesus and to others.  Bl. Gnocchi believed that “if there is a noble interest behind every pain of life, living will become both sacrificial and heroic.”  Indeed.

It’s been almost four years since Sarah had her first major surgery – the one that made me question my faith and everything I believed to be true about God and the Faith.  The journey is long when one encounters these little ones who suffer ceaselessly and immensely.  Sarah is fortunate that her suffering isn’t continual, as is the case for many other children we’ve met throughout the years.

Bl. Gnocchi offers us all incredible insight into the phenomenon called “victim souls.”  While some shudder at this, it’s worth challenging our current worldview, so that we might not become so angry or skeptical about the suffering of innocent children.  They are not victims in a slavish sense.  They are not coerced to suffer because of a twisted sense of masochistic duty.  Rather, these souls willingly, freely participate in the redemption of mankind by uniting their pain to the Cross.

Victim souls are mystical martyrs, reflections of the greatest love there is – to lay down one’s life and give all to Jesus.  When we suffer, we are emptied of everything that prevents us from fully loving God.  When children suffer, they touch God’s heart in the holiest and most tender ways.

*All quotes obtained from Bl. Carlo Gnocchi’s “The Pedagogy of Innocent Suffering,” which can be obtained at


JEANNIE EWING is a Catholic spirituality writer and national inspirational speaker. Among her eight books, From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, is her most popular. She is a frequent guest on podcasts, radio shows, and has appeared on EWTN, CatholicTV, and ShalomWorld. Her deepest desire is to accompany those who suffer and are lonely. Visit her website at for more information.

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