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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Nov 18, 2010)
In our day and age, with the help of television, the internet, relatively easy global travel, and ample opportunities for cultural exchange, North Americans have become more aware of the religious traditions of the East than ever before. The basic teachings of Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism are familiar to almost every high school graduate now, and many of us have visited the great temples and holy shrines of these religions on trips to Asia. In fact, the adherents of these faiths dwell among us in the West now in record numbers, and openly practice their faith, as is their right in a society that enshrines freedom of conscience into law.

But this also means that some people in the West inevitably will be confused when they try to compare the spirituality of the Eastern religions with the doctrines and spirituality of Catholicism. Sadly, too many of us — having been poorly instructed in our own religious heritage — may be inclined to view these Asian imports through "rose-colored glasses." A generation or more of lax and banal catechesis at too many of our Catholic schools is partially to blame (but that sad story is best left for another column).

Still, mostly through no fault of their own, many Catholics are confused when they try to compare the Catholic faith with Eastern religions. Moreover, many of those who were not brought up as Catholics were unable to get a clear, public account of the Catholic faith from many sectors of the Church from the end of Vatican II until the new Catechism came out in 1993. Those nearly 30 years of confusion took a dreadful toll on the public perception of our faith.

For example, a reader of this column named Wallace sent to me the following letter. I think it sums up the struggles of many of our contemporaries in trying to figure out what Catholicism is all about and comparing our faith unfavorably in certain respects with the great religions of the Far East:

First, I would like to thank you for your very nice explanation of Sister Faustina's usage of the term "misery" in her writings. You were very reassuring. However, I found her spirituality so dismaying not because of her words alone, but because she seems to typify Catholicism in general. The Mass, for instance, is said to be celebrated before the crucifixion, in spirit, if I understand rightly. Stigmatists like St. Francis of Assisi and Padre Pio seem to exhibit very bloody spirituality. Sister Faustina herself talks of receiving some sort of crown of thorns, among other travails, such as diabolical persecutions.

For somebody raised in a secular environment, outside of the faith, it is rather disconcerting. Frankly, I have endured enough in life without organized religion. Reading Sister Faustina's writings, and seeing how Catholic spirituality in general can be so grisly, sometimes honestly makes me wonder if that is just the Way of the Cross. ...

I may be no expert on the subject, but I do seem to recall something in the Gospel about spiritual relief being provided to those in need. It is difficult to square such words with what honestly strikes me as intensely painful spirituality. In Eastern religion, for example, namely Buddhism, the alleviation of human suffering is the central mission. Western religion, particularly Catholicism, seems to revel in suffering, almost. Please correct me, if I am wrong.

Well, Wallace, you have certainly pointed to an aspect of Catholicism that is distinctive of our faith: a very vivid and direct approach to human suffering. Even as a convert from Protestantism to Catholicism many years ago, I noticed the graphic and uncompromising way that Catholic religious art approaches the sufferings of Christ: the bleeding crucifixes, the Pieta, the "sacrifice" of the Mass. And the saints seem to walk this Via Dolorosa too: Our Lady of Sorrows, the countless martyrs, the tears of contrition, and works of penance. Of course, the simplest way to answer your letter would be to point out that all this "blood, sweat, and tears" is barely half the story. There is the great joy of the saints to contend with (no one can be canonized a saint in the Church without exhibiting "holy joy," and in fact, who was more joyful than the very saint you mentioned, Francis of Assisi, the Troubador of God, who, even while bearing that very stigmata, recited on his deathbed his marvelous celebration of creation, the "Canticle of the Sun"). There are the miracles of healing and Our Lady of Lourdes, and of course, the radiance of Easter morning! But I think your good question needs a more extensive answer than that, so I will try my best.

First of all, one of the very things that made Catholicism so attractive to me as a convert 15 years ago was that, like you, I had "endured enough in life." I had known sudden and brutal physical suffering, abandonment by loved ones, even a nervous breakdown as an undergraduate — all this in relatively sheltered, middle class North America! And I was well aware of the much worse sufferings endured by others. I wanted a faith that could face the reality of our human brokenness and sorrow "head-on," not one that would run away from it or try to explain it away. I looked at the Eastern religions and found them all lacking in this very respect.

You said that Buddhism seeks the alleviation of suffering. Yes, indeed, but how? In fact, it is the Catholic Church, not Buddhism, that has devoted itself to the relief of human suffering. Think of the countless Catholic hospitals, orphanages, schools for the poor, clinics, shelters for the homeless, and hunger relief projects down through the centuries. I believe it is true that the Catholic Church is still the largest single provider of health care in the entire world.

Did Buddhism inspire anything like that?

I am not saying that Buddhists do not care about human suffering (Buddha taught a way of compassion of sorts), but the central teaching of Buddhism is that human suffering comes from unsatisfied desires, and therefore the primary way to be released from suffering is to let go of all of one's desires. In other words, Buddhism seeks to escape suffering, to run away from it, not to find a way through it.

Escapism is surely not the answer, for much human suffering simply cannot be escaped that way, and I must not turn a blind eye to the sufferings of my neighbors, either. I must passionately desire their good ("blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness sake," Jesus said). Then there is Hinduism. Hinduism classically did not run away from suffering, but it did try to explain it away as a result of "bad Karma." No relief or equity for the lowest of the low, the "untouchables," in classical Hindi society: They must work off their bad Karma. Of course, this is also not to say that Hindus generally do not care about the poor. Many see this moral duty as an aspect of their "dharma" (their appointed role in life). But again, this is surely secondary to the great Hindu goal of escaping from the terrible wheel of Karmic justice.

So, in Catholicism I found the bloody crucifixes not to be disturbing but just plain honest, because that's precisely where most of us are, most of the time, in one way or another: We are with Jesus, on the Cross. The fact that the Son of God Himself once cried out on the Cross: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mk 15:34) is one of the greatest comforts of the Catholic faith to me. It means that there is no human misery that He has not taken on His own heart. It means that by taking flesh and dwelling among us as a real human being, He has shared with us all the joys, pains, and sorrows of the human journey, and He does not ask us to walk through any darkness or pain that he has not walked through Himself. "Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows. ... and by His stripes we are healed" (Is 53:4-5). It is precisely because He descended into the very depths of total human affliction for us on the Cross, and rose again, that I can believe He can raise us up from those depths to new life — even everlasting life. Nothing is a greater sign of hope to me than the Cross.

Secondly, the Catholic attitude to suffering has been explained so beautifully by Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter "Salvifici Dolores," that all I can do is urge you Wallace, and the rest of our readers, to read it for yourselves someday (you can find it on the Vatican website

To sum it up briefly: The Pope said that there are two basic attitudes that we should have toward human suffering. We should do what good we can for the suffering, and we should try to do what good we can with our own sufferings.

First, we should try to relieve the sufferings of others (and our own) as much as possible, with compassionate care. The Pope recalls for us the importance of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan in this regard. But where our own crosses cannot be taken away, we can still offer them up, in union with the Cross of Jesus, for the good of others. United with His Cross, in the Holy Spirit, our sufferings can thereby become a source of blessings and graces for the Church and the world. The chronically ill and suffering are therefore not just to be objects of our pity: they have an important vocation in the Church. Let me finish this column with the Pope's own words, which I have quoted once before in this series, but never tire of repeating them again and again:

Christ does not explain in the abstract the reason for suffering, but before all else He says: "Follow me!" Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my cross! Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed to him. ... Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person "completes what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Col 1:24); the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service ("Salvifici Dolores," 26-27).

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at

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anon - Jul 21, 2018

β€œAt times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened. Of such are they that in truth go down alive into hell, being purged here on earth in the same manner as there, since this purgation is that which would have to be accomplished there.” 26th Doctor of the Church, Saint John of the Cross – Dark Night of the Soul. Yeah – Catholics suffer!

anon - Jul 21, 2018

Why, O LORD, do you stand aloof?
Why hide in times of distress?

anon - Jul 21, 2018

My God, My God, why have you abandoned me? Who can express the utter horror of that state? The bottomless void of infinite suffering, a vacuum that sucks everything into it, a pain that goes beyond anything the mind can conceive, and with no help at all! Horror beyond all horror! Just when you needed help the most, all help fails you! Welcome to the abyss!

Mike - Jun 7, 2016

I think that it is inevitable that each person will suffer during their life. The thing that I struggle with mightily as a Catholic is the idea that some people seem to embrace that we ought to as Catholics seek suffering as a means of becoming Holy. When I asked our Monsignor about this view he said that to seek suffering is to practice masochism and that to practice masochism is not healthy. I agree with him 100%

Ting - Nov 15, 2011

Touching explanation indeed, coming from the heart of a person whose suffering brought light to many. Am I right in saying that 'joy' comes from knowing that suffering united with Christ suffering shares in Christ work of redemption and that 'joy'is also from the hope that one day we would share in the glory that God reserves for us in heaven?

Denise - Nov 26, 2010

Thank you for this article. Last week at Cencacle meeting it came up and it is almost as if you listened in on our discussion!

Lighted soul - Nov 19, 2010

It seems like many of us carry different kinds of crosses in our daily living. But being like Jesus and suffering on our cross to, we will also come and experience the LIGHT which is peace, love ,joy and forgiveness

Humble Servant of God's Merciful Love - Oct 30, 2009

Sin is our failure to love with the Merciful, Eternal Love that is in God separating us from God. The consequence of sin is tyrannical even indiscriminate suffering, and every conversion of a sinful soul demands Sacrifice: the Merciful Love of God seen in the suffering of Jesus and those who are His.

Know, My daughter, that My Heart is Mercy Itself. From this sea of Mercy graces flow out upon the whole world. No soul that has approached Me has ever gone away unconsoled. All misery gets buried to the depths of My Mercy, and every saving and sanctifying graces flow from this fountain. My daughter, I desire that your heart be an abiding place of My Mercy. I desire that this Mercy flow out upon the whole world through your heart. Let no one who approaches you go away without that trust in My Mercy which I so ardently desire from souls (Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy In My Soul, 1777).

Because man sins and becomes unworthy of God's Love, God creates a punishment while at the same time also creating ??" as a new testimony of Love ??" that which alone can be identified as the experience of finitude in the actual sense: He creates death. Through death, God puts an end to the creature who has chosen sin so that the condition of being in sin does not continue without bounds. This impose end is both punishment and Mercy and bears the insoluble stamp of a divinely imposed measure that from the outset looks forward to the coming Redemptive Death of the Son. Were man, as he has become, to continue his life on earth without end, his would be a completely ineluctable situation. He would have become a sinner once and for all, a sinner unable to find a way back to God. However, a way back does present itself in two interconnected ways: through grace in mortal life and through grace in death. God's grace can touch a living sinner: he converts, puts an end to sin through God's grace, and lives the remainder of his life in grace, though in the knowledge that God has marked an end for all human beings in death. The convert will stride through death as one who was already been touched by grace in life and who will find in death the God of Love. But this is only true because the Son has taken upon Himself the end that is death and has died for all men, including this particular convert. Because the Son dies for and with him, he will be entrusted in death completely to the grace of God. Therefore, he already knows in life that the finitude of his existence corresponds to a grace from God that has been granted to all men and not just to him. The experience of his finitude, however, affords him knowledge of God's infinity: his knowledge of the end of earthly life is a recognition of Eternal Life. He can thus regard death, not only as punishment, but equally as the Father's grace. The Son has taken death's purely punitive character upon Himself and thereby released the character of grace for His brothers, whereby He unveils and fulfills the purpose of finitude. He also does this for those who did not experience the grace of conversion in life, who die in ignorance, and who would be delivered in complete helplessness to the end imposed by God had the Son, by dying, not drawn Heaven closer to them. On earth they don not yet know of this realm; they only discover its existence having passed through death. In a way, they are the saints of the very last hour who are given insight only after it is already too late from an earthly perspective. For the Son's complete gift of Self has broken the bounds of finitude for all, and the sign of this is His Resurrection from the dead; His descent into the underworld is part of this sign: He does not just pass fleetingly through these areas unknown to us; He stays there for three days. He therefore takes the entire accumulation of His strength into the Redemptive Sacrifice that led to His Death: a higher-dying of the most living Love, beyond death and into the underworld. He lets Himself take effect there so as to crown the Merciful Loving Act of Redemption and open to sinners a previously unsuspected form of being struck by His Sweet Loving Presence. Since the Son became man and kept company with us in our form, we claim to know what this form was. Nonetheless, for each word He spoke, for each miracle He performed, and most properly at His Death and Resurrection, we have to allow for dimensions that we cannot master intellectually; the world that He brought with Him is His Heavenly world, the world of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, a world that infinitely surpasses our own. As humans, we are inclined to regard each act that the Son performs as finite, yet with each act He opens up infinity. Each time He does something as man, He does something Divine. In everything He is and does, He grants us glimpses into the boundlessness of Heaven. These strengthen our Faith and, what is more, are capable of increasing our Hope and Love. For these are redemptive acts from the center of God's Infinite Love. Which are not only surrounded by the Father's Love and not only point to it but also have the characteristic of including us and almost throwing us into His Boundless Love.

Confession grants us just such a view of infinity. When we go to confession, we pass through a kind of death and, by acknowledging our sin, reach the end of it ??" the end that God has instituted through death. We repentantly confess and reach a boundary, an endpoint given us by the Son. The absolution we receive comes from the beyond here and now and is comparable to going to Heaven. Sin is shown its end in accordance with God's punitive judgment, but a new life is also shown its beginning. Man experiences through this that God is exercising His Love anew. He has been granted death and Holy Confession so that He can grant new space to the Infinite Love of the Triune God.

And so, to achieve the fullness of life that we are promised, the holiness we are commanded to attain, "let us then approach the throne of grace with limitless confidence, so that we may receive Mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4:6).

Jesus' Commandment of Love, which extols the love of one person for another as the meaning and goal of life, is nothing other than the expression of Inner-Divine Love. We should love one another because God loves us so much and because God simply is Love. And when we are commanded to be as perfect as our Heavenly Father is Perfect, this is only a completion of the Commandment of Love, because perfection consists in, and leads to, Merciful, Eternal Love. A love of neighbor that is directed exclusively toward human beings and disregards God's Love would ultimately form an egotistical circle, such a love would produce a reciprocal love that corresponds to it but that would be terminated and extinguished in this reciprocity. Man would dissociate himself from his infinite purpose. However, when a praying believer loves a fellow believer, he loves him in a way directed toward God; he loves his neighbor with a view to God. This is not simply in a love that he can measure or monitor, but in a love that places him in the loving service of the ever-greater God, a love that he offers up like an act of worship so that God might perfect it in His Immeasurable Mercy. He does not just love with his sight directed at human beings, and his love may not just be fruitful in his own sense of it; he entrust his love to God so that God can draw it to Himself and let it be efficacious from Heaven. Such love might just as well be called prayer as called love; for God accepts all genuine love like a prayer in order to use it exactly where He needs it. He can make do just as well with the love of two lovers or the love of a believer for his parish and Church or a believer's love of God as he can with an express sacrifice or prayer. He takes this love to Himself, purifies it completely, and gives it back sanctified to the world, to the Church, and to men in order to lead them back to a purer, freer and a readiness with joy-filled willingness for a deeper and more loving intimacy with God.

May this Limitless Love and Inexhaustible Mercy that is in the Holy Trinity be in our ever-increasing trusting hearts, guiding and leading us back to Him.

Paul - May 26, 2009

When Catholic spouses find marriage no longer "fun" and they aren't "made happy" by their spouse, too-often they drift/doubt/and divorce.
No-fault divorce is really unilateral divorce -- the abandoned spouse is helpless to stop it. By now both spouses are suffering and are told their "failed marriage" likely is invalid. Typically, they are coached by a pastor to file for an annulment. Many grow impatient and remarry before the process ever is completed.
If there are children: they've been wounded, scarred, and many leave the Faith. [See Mary's Advocates website for more information.]
Next, the cancer spreads faster than the H1N1 virus -- spouses who'd doubted their own vows now follow their divorced friend.
1 Corinthians 7:10-11 gives two choices for suffering AS GOD'S COMMANDMENT in Marriage: live as a married-single or seek to reconcile. This means accepting one's suffering with one's spouse or suffering alone. Why is this [potentially] redemptive suffering not taught?

Maria P (Canada) - May 21, 2009

Thank you Dr. Stackpole for this article. Eloquently written. You brought up something that I have tried numerous times to clarify with others my own understanding of suffering. That is, "why do people want to escape from suffering." Just read the papers or listen to the media when it comes to "Euthanasia". Most people don't have the courage to go through pain but it may sound morbid to many but there is "Joy in Suffering". Just uniting our hearts to His Sacred Heart brings "empowerment" and a feeling of being "whole". Through Jesus' unfathomable humility, He went to such lengths as dying on the Cross for us. Let's not run away from the Cross because is the TRUTH. Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17 is so beautifully put, especially John 17:17--"Consecrate them in the Truth". We all need to allow the Holy Spirit to minister to us, to speak deeply into our souls so that we may receive the gift of wisdom and understanding of our Christian Catholic faith. The Eucharist is the result of His dying for us and when we consume HIM, we are giving Him thanks and embracing His love and teachings in our life. The Eucharist sustains us in everything we go through. This is why the Daily Mass is precious as we start our day with "JESUS".

I.C. - May 21, 2009

Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John:14:6).
" This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven."(Acts 1:11)." Solo Dios basta".

Michael - May 21, 2009

The most accurate and complete explanation of why "suffering" I have studied to date is by Fr John Corapi as presented in his talk "The Cross and the Christian". An excellent resource for our growth and understanding.

Maria - May 20, 2009

'He died for us even when we were dead in our sins' - The Word tells us ; that one truth , if it has taken hold in the depth of our hearts ,helps us to have the kind of trust and love that God wants His children to have ,to face all and any sitaution with peace .

That trust has led The Church to uphold the dignity and infinite value of all human life in all stages .

Our Lord showed us trust and love in the Father and in turn showed us what we ourselves are capable of , trusting in the Father's love for us .

As mentioned in the article above , other faiths often distort or only give partial truths; hinduism depicts gods who have many of the fallen traits ( and thus untrustworthy !); buddhism, may be a god who either would not or cannot care enough - are these not the two traits that the liar in The Garden had implicated about The Father, as someone not worth our trust !

That lie and lack of trust in the Father's love has been the cause of all our 'sins'and our Lord HImself showed us the why and how of trust !

Such trust brings joy and peace and power that He wants for us children even when faced with the evils brought on by the enemy.

No other faith has that fulness of truth - for they are mostly legends , ideas from our untrusting hearts influenced by the enemy !

Often they are more about fearful escapism ( hiding ) or placation with slavish fear .

May our Lord help us all to have true trust in Him !

I.C. - May 20, 2009

Almighty Eternal Father, give us the grace to be witnesses of Your Son, Lord Jesus, King of Mercy. " If you love me , you will keep my commandments"(John 14:15). To believe is to love Lord Jesus.

Steph - May 20, 2009

I have a disablity. One of the things I love about our church is our belief in redemptive suffering. It makes me realize I have a purpose . I would encourage everyone to read St.Paul's letters. He talks alot about it. My favorite qoute from scripture is col. 1:24