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On the Christian Meaning of Suffering Meditation Series

This is a seven week meditation series examining the Christian meaning of suffering according to the thought of Pope St. John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic letter “Salvifici Doloris.” This series is published by The Archdiocese of San Francisco.

Pope St. John Paul II was no stranger to suffering. Among the challenges he faced in life include living under Nazi and then communist occupation in Poland, attending clandestine seminary, losing both his parents and his brother at a young age, watching his friends, including his fellow seminarians, priests and Jewish friends be murdered during the Second World War, surviving a papal assassination attempt and then spending his last years of life crippled by Parkinson’s disease.

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The Holy Father, Pope Saint John Paul II, ends this second part of his letter with sobering words: “One thinks, finally, of war” (Paragraph 8, “Salvifici Doloris”). And we know he was no stranger to war. He was born only two years after the end of the First World War and survived the Second World War when many of his fellow clandestine seminarians, as well as Polish clerics, were murdered.

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It is unsurprising that St. John Paul II, in his meditation on the meaning of suffering, explores the problem of human pain and suffering in light of the biblical character of Job. We discover in examining the Book of Job not only rich content for some of the reasons behind suffering but also the way in which suffering undoubtedly affects our relationship with God.

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Pope St. John Paul II continues his meditation on suffering by discussing one of the causes of suffering — evil in the form of personal sin. He writes: “The conscious and free violation of this good by man is not only a transgression of the law but at the same time an offense against the Creator, who is the first Lawgiver.”

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In the first part of his meditation, John Paul II unpacks suffering in light of man’s nature, the transcendent quality of man’s suffering in particular, the vocational quality of man’s suffering, the cause of suffering (namely, evil) and the biblical character of Job and its relationship to justice. In the second part, he transitions his meditation on suffering in relationship to divine love.

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Saint John Paul II writes that “sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering” (“Salvifici Doloris,” Par. 6). He goes on to list examples of the ways in which we suffer from the Old Testament:

  • Danger of death.

  • The death of one’s own children.

  • Infertility.

  • Exile.

  • Persecution and discrimination.

  • Loneliness and abandonment.

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The narrative of a Christian’s life takes the shape of the life of Christ in the paschal mystery: Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. 2023 was certainly a “Good Friday” year. Armenia, the world’s first nation to declare the Christian faith its official state religion in 301 A.D., witnessed the ethnic and religious cleansing of 120,000 men, women and children in a region in the Near East called the Nagorno-Karabakh or Artsakh. The world remains largely unaware and indifferent to this genocide of Armenian Christians. We also saw the brutality of the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7 – Israel’s “9/11” so to speak – as well as a wave of anti-Jewish protests and attacks in the United States and throughout the world in a climate which was already increasing in its anti-Jewish incidents.

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