Reflecting on Suffering
By Frances Kissling
Conscience goes to press as the church marks the 25th anniversary of the election of Karol Wojtyla as pope. Reactions right and left are somewhat predictable, and perhaps mine are no exception. A significant part of the last 25 years of my life is inextricably joined to that of the pope. After all, we have been locked in a long distance battle over women, sex and reproduction. Of course, we’ve never met; I’m not on the A list for invitations to papal events. I’d like to think that the work I’m doing has entered his consciousness and given rise to more than passing irritation. But most likely, I’ve barely registered on the papal Richter scale.
I, on the other hand, have spent a lot of time thinking about him. After all, he is my pope. I’ve scoured photos; read much of what he’s written; and collected pope kitsch from paper dolls to Halloween masks and foam mitres. I’ve tried to love him, to see what is best in him, to be generous. At the deepest level, I suspect there is a profound spirituality, perhaps more easily seen in his present vulnerability. There is something profoundly moving about his presence as an old, frail suffering man. What is this man-who has exerted such enormous will, had so much power and control over the lives of so many-thinking when he cannot speak, slurs his words, is unable to walk? Is he frustrated? Does he see himself as a symbol of Christ’s suffering? Conservative Catholics who are close to him speak of his suffering as a source of inspiration. I can see it; and, to some extent, respect it.
After all, the exaltation of suffering is what his papacy is all about. In some existential, essentialist way does he feel a connection between what he is now suffering and the pain he has caused so many in the church and in the larger world? As he becomes in some way isolated by his inability to communicate, does he reflect on the isolation and marginalization he has provoked in the church? Does he reflect on the war he has unleashed between those for whom the church is exemplified by the theology of suffering and the fall from grace and those for whom the church is marked by the resurrection, by a theology of joyfulness?
In spite of the occasional images of him smiling, embracing children, enjoying nature, I will remember him as one who seemed most at ease when he embraced suffering-and demanded it of others. This is the only way I can understand how he showed so little interest in preventing the personal pain and suffering that characterizes modern life.
He will always be the pope who in the face of aids refused to accept that condoms were an essential element of a culture of life; the pope who could exhort women who had been raped in war to turn the rape into an act of love by bearing the child of their rapist. These are not small matters. Forty million people are suffering from aids and his message, if followed will result in many more contracting this deadly disease. The number of women who face physical violence daily is legion. These were the two harshest messages of his papacy, the most inexplicable.
When one looks at the state of the world, surely it is clear that the last thing we need is more suffering. There is more than enough to go around. And a wise and compassionate leader would have spent the last 25 years helping humanity find ways to alleviate suffering. John Paul II has not been that leader.
What is essential is that the next pope leads a process of healing that ends the suffering the church and all its people have endured for the past 25 years.
Frances Kissling is the executive editor of Conscience and president of Catholics for a Free Choice.
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