Dear Friends of the Heart of Christ,
Raised in a Catholic family of Polish ancestry, as child I quickly learned the meaning of the familiar adage, “Offer it up.” Anything that required a sacrifice or that went against my youthful self-determination or that caused physical suffering was to be “offered up” to the good Lord. Perhaps this was an easy excuse on the part of my parents, especially my mother, to avoid any lengthy philosophical explanations on why I couldn’t have my own way. Truly, it was effective in getting me and my twin sister to stop whining and transcend to a higher plane. A particular incident that still lingers in my memory is a good illustration of this. I was riding my bicycle in the schoolyard behind the elementary school across from our house. A sizable branch had come down from a tree, and I got it into my head that it would be fun to ride over it. Well, I didn’t make it. Down I went with my knees grinding into the gravel surface and embedding in them a good amount of grit, now mixed with blood. I painfully picked myself up and limped the short distance back to our house. My dear mother, an expert on fixing her venturous kids’ boo-boos, got to work cleaning me up. I whimpered and hissed as the hydrogen peroxide and tincture of iodine did its work in my wounds, while my mother gently exhorted me to be strong and “Offer it up.” That simple reminder ingrained in me since childhood, was a good preparation for all the usual and unusual sacrifices that have come my way in secular and religious life.
We all have to encounter pain in one way or another as we go through our life’s journey here on earth. God has allowed each of us born into this mortal life to experience pain — physical, mental or spiritual. There is no getting away from it. Disciples of a crucified Lord, we are called by Jesus to imitate Him. He says to us, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross…” (Mt 16:24). This means we cannot live our lives on a perpetual pleasure trip, always trying to get our own way or to avoid pain at all costs. Being true followers of Jesus, being disciples of His Sacred Heart, being faithful to Gospel values will entail for each of us certain sacrifices.
In the liturgy for the Feast of the Sacred Heart (Year A), the Church incorporates from Matthew’s Gospel (11:28) the verse that has Jesus saying: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” This invitation from Jesus’ Heart beckons us to step forward and entrust our cares, anxieties, pains and even our agonies to him. In other words, he wants us to give these things to Him — to offer them to His Heart. When we do, when we pour our heartaches into the Sacred Heart, he can use them to purify and sanctify us and so many other needy souls. With these sacrificial offerings from our heart to the Heart of Jesus, the Lord can effect His mysterious works of saving souls and converting hearts.
For many, many people today, suffering is an enigma, something to be avoided at all costs. As Catholics, we know that suffering should not be purposely inflicted on others or on ourselves. We do not perpetrate wrongs against others, nor do we mutilate our God-given bodies. But when suffering does come our way, we are encouraged by Church teaching to unite our pains with the Lord Jesus Christ. St. Paul points out in his writings, “We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). Suffering well — in union with Christ — is the spiritual currency that pays tremendous supernatural and natural dividends for us and for others. Years ago I read a story that I often reflect upon. It was of a soldier who had received life-threatening wounds and was dying alone on the battlefield. No one attended him. He knew his time was short and being a Christian, consciously made an attempt to place his wounds into the sacred wounds of the Lord. After his death, one of his family members received the following enlightenment in prayer: that their beloved soldier went straight to heaven because his final action touched the Heart of the Lord who accepted his noble offering in uniting his sufferings with that of Christ.
Besides the supreme example of Jesus, the saints are our models on how to suffer, for there is no such thing as a saint who did not suffer well. From the life of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque we can learn much about suffering according to the mind of Christ. This scenario from her Autobiography gives us a glimpse into how God works:
Although we may not be as spiritually advanced as St. Margaret Mary, our everyday miseries can be transformed into goldmines when we consciously choose to offer them to the Sacred Heart. This is the concept of redemptive suffering — a part of Catholic doctrine that makes no sense to the worldly who live for the here and now. People who espouse the practice of euthanasia or are totally immersed in the view that “quality of life” is the only thing that matters, will find this teaching absurd, slinging at it vile ridicule and insults. Yet, we are on solid ground when we believe in the supernatural value of our sufferings offered to the Lord. In Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Miserentissimus Redemptor which confirms the Church’s position with respect to the visions of Jesus Christ reported by Saint Margaret Mary, he specifically tells us: “Although the copious Redemption operated by Our Lord has superabundantly forgiven all sins, yet… there must be completed in us what is missing in Christ’s suffering on behalf of His Body, that is, His Church (Col. 1:24). We can and must add to the homage and satisfaction (expiatory suffering) that Christ renders to God, our own homage and satisfaction on behalf of sinners.”
You may recall that St. John Paul II, no stranger to suffering, was the author of the apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (1984) which deals with the Christian meaning of human suffering. In it he explains that our Redeemer suffered in place of every man and woman but that we all have our own share in Christ’s redemption. This apostolic letter, I believe, emerged from the depths of his own personal experience of suffering — the loss of his mother, father and only brother when he was a young man and of all that he had to go through living under a Communist regime. Suffering was part and parcel of his upbringing. No wonder the story is told of a priest who approached him who had tremendous pain in his knee and needed surgery. He approached the Pope and said, “Holy Father, please pray for my knee.” John Paul lightly smacked him across the face, saying to him, “Don’t waste your sufferings,” meaning we can use them to work for salvation—our own, others and for the Kingdom of God.
One of the hardest things in life is to suffer patiently. Thinking back to the times when we have really suffered (or perhaps are suffering now), we may have become extremely anxious and fearful of what would happen. At this stage, we need a huge dose of a spiritual tranquilizer. Perhaps that is not the right word to describe what we really need, which is true peace of heart that assures us all will be well. This, of course, comes from “on high.” It is a grace we receive when we turn with confidence to the compassionate Heart of Christ. The Lord explained this so well when He told one of His suffering friends, Blessed Alexandrina Maria da Costa (1904-1955), a Portuguese mystic and victim soul:“My daughter, suffering is the key to heaven. I have endured so much to open heaven to all mankind, but for many it was in vain. They say, ‘I want to enjoy life, I have come into the world only for enjoyment.’ They say, ‘Hell does not exist.’ I have died for them and they say they did not ask me to do so… Happy the soul who understands the value of suffering! My cross is sweet if carried for love of me. I chose you from your mother’s womb. I watch over you in your great difficulties. It was I who chose them for you, that I might have a victim to offer me much reparation. Lean on my Sacred Heart and find therein strength to suffer everything.”
In our lives we may have come across individuals who have been real inspirations as they have gone through horrendous situations and have emerged better and stronger persons. I can think of a Sister in our Wilmington community whose family suffered a heart-rending loss when one of its members tragically died. The situation was extremely painful and caused the Sister ultimately to leave our community to help her family. She eventually entered an active religious congregation, got her Ph.D. in counseling and is now helping many people with her expertise and lived-experience as they mourn losses in their own lives. She has a great love of the Sacred Heart, and I know that her inner strength to deal with all she went through came from her deep prayer life and trust in that Heart that never fails us.
Our experiences of pain — when lifted up to the Heart of Jesus — can instill in us a spiritual prowess and wisdom. God is never outdone in generosity. Examples like the modern-day mystic Marthe Robin (+1981) who was completely paralyzed by the age of 28, prove that suffering offered to the Lord bears much fruit. In this case, Robin was given the gift of reading people’s souls, enabling her to give excellent spiritual advice. And we are all familiar with the extraordinary charisms of St. Padre Pio whose sufferings and prayers helped countless souls. When we suffer valiantly, uniting our sufferings with the Lord’s, He gives us in return supernatural gifts that make us His special envoys to assist others in need and bring them closer to His Sacred Heart. †