St. Paul reflected often on suffering. In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Colossians 1:24).
In his letters, Paul frequently attests to his great suffering. He was beaten, shipwrecked, imprisoned many times, rejected by his own people, and he suffered under the weight of some ailment—physical or psychological, we don’t really know—for the whole of his life. Finally, of course, he was put to death. He was a man who knew about pain.
But here he tells us that he rejoices in his sufferings because, somehow, they are joined to the sufferings of Christ.
How do we understand this? Well, Christ saved us through an act of suffering. He died for us on the cross, bearing in his own person the weight of our sin. On the cross, suffering and love coincided. And when you think of it, every act of love involves suffering, since love always involves bearing the burden of another.
Now in Paul’s vision, the Church is not a society or a collectivity of like-minded people. Rather, it is a body, made up of interdependent cells, molecules, and organs. We don’t just follow Christ or admire him; we participate in him. Baptism involves just this dynamic of identification and participation.
Therefore, we shouldn’t be surprised that we will be called upon to suffer. We have been given the privilege of carrying on Christ’s work in the world in just this way.
Charles Williams speaks of the principle of co-inherence as key to Catholicism. This is the idea that we are connected to one another much as the organs and systems of a living body are connected.
Thus, just as one system can take up the work of another, or one organ the burden of another that is ailing, so can one member of the body of Christ bear the burden of another.
In accord with Paul’s master idea, we can consciously offer our suffering—physical, spiritual, psychological—to Christ in order that he might use it, in his own mysterious manner, to benefit someone else. Christ allows us to minister through our pain.