There are times when the saving quality of our suffering is relatively easy to understand (even if it’s hard to bear). When a mother stays up all night, depriving herself of sleep, in order to care for a sick child, she is carrying his burden, suffering so that some of his suffering might be alleviated. When a person willingly bears an insult, and refuses to fight back or return insult for insult, he is suffering for the sake of love.
I’ll give you two more dramatic examples. First is Maximilian Kolbe. When a prisoner escaped from Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, the Nazi soldiers imposed their penalty. They took all of the prisoners from the escapees’ barracks and lined them up and then at random chose a man to be put to death in retaliation. When the man broke down in tears, protesting that he was the father of young children, a quiet bespectacled man stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest; I have no family. I would like to die in this man’s place.”
Here, with brutal clarity, we can see the relationship between salvation and suffering willingly accepted. St. Maximilian Kolbe was consciously participating in the act of his Master, making up, in Paul’s language, what is still lacking in the suffering of Christ (Colossians 1:24).
And then there is St. Francis of Assisi, from whom Pope Francis took his name. Among the many stories told of St. Francis, one of the most affecting is that concerning his encounter with a leprous man.
Young Francis had a particular revulsion for leprosy. Whenever he saw someone suffering from that disease, he would run in the opposite direction. One day, he saw a leper approaching, and he sensed the familiar apprehension and disgust. But then he decided, under the inspiration of the Gospel, to embrace the man, kiss him, and give him alms. Filled with joy, Francis made his way up the road. When he turned around, he discovered the man gone, disappeared.
Once again, suffering was the concrete expression of love.