Reflecting on Suffering

By Frances Kissling
Autumn 2003

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.

Timeline: Pope John Paul II

The Pope in the World

There is an attempted assassination on the pope by Mehmet Ali Agca, whom the pope subsequently visits the next year in prison.

This pope is the first to visit a synagogue.

The pope is also the first pope to meet a leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.

The pope works to prevent the first Gulf War and makes his 50th pastoral visit overseas.

A papal commission into the Galileo affair reports that theologians at the time made a “subjective error of judgment, so clear to us today, [which] led them to a disciplinary measure from which Galileo had much to suffer.”

Pope John Paul II condemns violence against women in his Letter to Women.

The pope makes his 75th foreign pastoral visit, and establishes relations with Israel.

The pope announces a papal investigation into the church’s role in the Holocaust.

The Vatican establishes relations with the PLO. In the same year, the pope appeals for a globalization that extends beyond the economy to encompass worldwide solidarity, and an end to labor inequality and injustice throughout the world. Despite technological progress, he said, “realities such as unemployment, exploitation of minors and low wages persist.”

The pope summons the US cardinals to Rome to discuss the sexual abuse crisis. Shortly afterwards, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston resigns.

The pope urges world leaders, especially George W. Bush, not to go to war in Iraq, causing conservative Catholics to decry his position. He also makes his 100th pastoral overseas visit.

The Pope in the Church

The pope, addressing the International Congress of Moral Theologians in Rome, states that a hemophiliac with AIDS cannot use condoms so as not to infect his wife during sex.

The pope opposes the use of emergency contraception when he urges Bosnian Muslim women who had been raped during the war to “transform an act of violence into an act of love and welcome” by “accepting” the enemy into them and making him “flesh of their own flesh” by carrying their pregnancies to term.

The pope issues a stern “no” to the ordination of women, using the argument that Christ only appointed males as his apostles. The pope insists “doctrine cannot be based on public opinion.”

The pope beatifies two women to serve as “models of Christian perfection.” Elisabetta Canori Mora (d.1825) stayed with a physically abusive husband rather than violate the marriage sacrament, showing, the pope said, “her total fidelity to the commitment assumed in the sacrament of marriage.” Gianna Beretta (d.1962), who was suffering from a lethal uterine cancer, insisted that instead of treatment, her life should be sacrificed to allow her to continue her pregnancy to term.

At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the Holy See delegation announces that it “firmly condemns all forms of violence against and exploitation of women and girls.” The delegation argued that sexuality should exist solely within marriage.

The Vatican withdraws its annual contribution to UNICEF because the fund had endorsed a health manual for refugee populations that mentioned the use of emergency contraception for women who had been raped. Also this year, the pope blames contraception for an “eclipse of values,” and condemns gay unions.

The pope offers an apology for the sexual abuse of nuns by Catholic clergy, acknowledging that it damaged the church and caused “great suffering and spiritual harm.” The apology was contained in one paragraph of a 120-page message to Catholics in Oceania.

The Vatican calls on all Catholic politicians to actively oppose gay unions.


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