Up Front and Personal

Two Saintly Popes Knew The Value of Suffering

by Sister Constance Carolyn Veit

This Sunday, Pope Francis will canonize two of his predecessors: “Good” Pope John XXIII and John Paul “the Great.” These charismatic and accomplished men of God produced 22 encyclicals on a wide range of topics (eight for Pope John and 14 for John Paul II). Reflecting on their legacies, what is most striking to us as Little Sisters of the Poor at the service of the elderly are the “last encyclicals” of these two great men – for they were composed not of words but of the lived example of two saints as they journeyed toward the Father’s house.

The concept of a lived “last encyclical” originates in the thought of John Paul himself. In a book titled “Why He Is a Saint,” Father Slawomir Oder, postulator for his cause, shares an insight into how John Paul II perceived his own suffering and approaching death: “I have written many encyclicals and many apostolic letters, but I realize that it is only with my suffering that I can best help mankind. Think of the value of pain, suffered and offered with love…”

For John Paul II, suffering was an opportunity for solidarity. At the dawn of his papacy, he reached out to the sick, saying that the Church was in great need of their help, their prayers and their sacrifices. As he was released from the hospital after being shot in 1981, he thanked God for saving his life and allowing him to belong “to the community of the sick suffering… who constitute, in a certain sense, a special segment of the Church.”

John Paul later penned an apostolic letter on the Christian meaning of human suffering, in which he shared this stunning insight: “Suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards one’s neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a ‘civilization of love.’”

Unlike John Paul II, Pope John was already an old man when he was elected pope in 1958. Consistent with the humble, simple way he had lived prior to ascending to the papacy, Pope John’s favorite title was “servant of the servants of God.” Despite his advanced age, he had the boldness and youthfulness of spirit to breathe fresh air into the Church by initiating the Second Vatican Council. Yet a bedtime prayer attributed to Pope John attests to his childlike trust in God, despite the weight of his office: “I’ve done the best I could in your service this day, Oh Lord. I’m going to bed. It’s your church. Take care of it!”

John XXIII had this same spirit of simplicity regarding death. In his journal he wrote, “When we die we shall change our state, that is all. And with faith in God, it is as easy and natural as going to sleep here and waking up there.” In 1961, recognizing his increasing infirmity, Pope John penned a prayer that echoes his earlier words: “O Jesus, here I am before you. You are suffering and dying for me, old as I am now and drawing near the end of my service and my life. Hold me closely, and near to your heart, letting mine beat with yours. I love to feel myself bound forever to you with a gold chain, woven of lovely, delicate links…”[hr]

Sister Constance Carolyn Veit, l.s.p., is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor in the U.S.

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