One of the most compelling things about our Catholic faith is our understanding of redemptive suffering—so much so that one couple I know specifically converted from Protestantism to Catholicism because of this! In their previous church, there was little understanding of how to fit suffering within the greater scheme of things. One can be tempted to believe that suffering is a sign of God’s displeasure, whereas a lack of suffering is a sign of God’s favor. Yet, upon reading the lives of the saints, we find that the opposite is almost true!
St. Thérèse of Lisieux, for example, rejoiced on Good Friday one year when she received the first sign of the tuberculosis which would take her life at age 24: “Ah! my soul was filled with a great consolation; I was interiorly persuaded that Jesus, on the anniversary of His own death, wanted to have me hear His first call. It was like a sweet and distant murmur that announced the Bridegroom’s arrival.” To be honest, such words from the saints can feel naïve or unrealistic as we are tempted to think, “Yeah, but they’re so far beyond me in sanctity,” or “But that was a different time and place…” Yet, human they were, and human are we.
JP2’s encyclical Salvifici Doloris explores the theology of suffering in great depth, and we would do well to heed this saint’s words of wisdom. For instance, he writes, “The springs of divine power gush forth precisely in the midst of human weakness. Those who share in the sufferings of Christ preserve in their own sufferings a very special particle of the infinite treasure of the world’s Redemption, and can share this treasure with others.” Suffering can be an opportunity for intimacy with Jesus, intercession for others, and the salvation of our souls. We are all going to face trials and death anyways, so why not let Jesus give them meaning?
Our world has lost the significance of suffering as it has lost the significance of Jesus’ cross. This is why we see even traditionally Christian countries like Portugal legalizing physician-assisted suicide, while others like Canada are already passing legislation to extend their medically assisted suicides to include “circumstances where a person’s sole underlying medical condition is a mental illness.” (see canada.ca)
Let’s be clear: asking physicians who have taken the Hippocratic Oath to inject you or your loved one with toxic quantities of chemicals with the intention of shortening your life is the opposite of ‘dying with dignity’. While watching another suffer is a great suffering in itself, what suffering people need is accompaniment, not euthanizing. The sick, mentally ill, and dying have inherent dignity. Their existence is valuable! And while there is nothing wrong with lessening someone’s pain (with painkillers, for instance), there is something very wrong with intentionally hastening someone’s death (even with painkillers). This line can be very thin, but it’s no less important: the catechism equates euthanasia to murder. (CCC 2276-9)
Finally, the sick and elderly elicit sacrificial love from their family and community—we should not resent them for that, but thank them and assure them that they are not ‘forgotten’, ‘worthless’, or ‘unwanted’! The difference between St. Thérèse’s disposition towards death and medically euthanizing humans is the difference between “thy will be done” and “my will be done”. Like the 7 Sacraments (or the Trinity for that matter), human suffering is indeed a mystery—not in the sense that it is irrational or unsolved, but in the sense that its significance is inexhaustible! Let us therefore trust in our good Lord, even in the face of darkness—for it is there that His light can shine all the more brilliantly.