Jesus taught us a lot about the meaning of love, and commanded us to “love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12). But he never said love was easy. Quite the opposite, in fact.
He also told us that “greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Authentic love necessarily involves the willingness to sacrifice oneself for those we love.
“The true love of Christ is centered on willing the good of the other, on pouring oneself out in charity for others. This is how the Son reveals the Father’s love. ... In Christ, we see that sacrifice is at the heart of love,” writes Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted in Into the Breach, his 2015 apostolic exhortation encouraging men to live their Catholic faith more boldly.
“Only the man who has fought the interior battle of self-mastery against sterility, the man who lays down his life for others, can avoid stagnancy and self-absorption,” the exhortation continues. “Never doubt that this sacrifice is worth the suffering!”
To love, then, is to suffer. A man suffers willingly when he sacrifices himself for the good of his wife, his children, his loved ones, or those whom he serves. He also suffers when those he loves suffer.
Beyond that, suffering is a universal experience. Everyone endures physical or emotional pain — illness, injury, heartache, disappointment. Everyone has a cross to carry. The key to suffering is in how a man responds to it. Does he fall into self-pity, or does he pick up his cross and carry it heroically?
“Suffering is often misunderstood,” said Bishop Olmsted in the eighth episode of the 12-part Into the Breach video series, which was produced by the Knights of Columbus and inspired by the exhortation. “It can easily move us to selfishness or being so focused on ourselves that we can't think of others. And it is a challenge for anyone who suffers.”
The problem of suffering is an age-old question. Why do the innocent sometimes suffer? Why doesn’t God take away our suffering? What meaning could it possibly have?
Suffering necessarily involves pain, but we can bring good out of it. Just like the athlete in training who says, “No pain, no gain,” we can grow in Christ-like virtue and even our ability to love when we face our suffering in the spirit of Christ.
“What kind of virtue? Patience, fortitude, humility, compassion, wisdom, understanding, the ability to love,” said Ryan Young, director of Camp Veritas, which forms Catholic teens in discipleship. “Now, if we’re just going through life serving our own best interests, we never learn how to love. Any time we serve each other, we are suffering in a way of giving up our time, giving up our focus and energy for someone else. We are then gaining virtue. It’s like a boot camp for the soul.”
Spiritual writers sometimes refer to the “mystery of suffering” because we cannot fully understand it.
Frank Ramirez went through the unimaginable agony of watching his young daughter die of a brain tumor. Through the ordeal, he led his family in prayer, relying on God and his Catholic faith.
“Jesus has given to all of us our own cross. We each have our own cross, but our suffering is not without purpose,” Ramirez said. “Jesus’ suffering was not just arbitrary suffering. It was not random suffering. There was a very specific purpose to his suffering. It was redemptive. And so our suffering, if we embrace it, it shares in that meaning and that purpose.”
By uniting our suffering to Christ’s Passion, we can share in his redemptive work, said Bishop Olmsted.
“Suffering is the way the world was redeemed,” Bishop Olmsted said. “Jesus took on human flesh through the Virgin Mary in order to die for us on the cross.”
If we can discover the redemptive meaning of our suffering through our faith, he added, we can help others discover the value of suffering.
Heroic suffering is a call to every believer. For men, they are called to love their wives “even as Christ loved the church” (Eph 5:25) and to serve their families as providers, protectors, and spiritual leaders. That requires “uniting yourself to Christ with a readiness to suffer,” said Nicholas Healy, associate professor of philosophy and culture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.
“Suffering is difficult,” Healy said. “But what the message of the cross communicates is a kind of love that is ready to give everything unto death, all the way, including suffering. ... It's still painful, but now in a certain way, it’s encompassed within and given over to the mystery of God’s redemption.”
To view episodes of the Into the Breach video series and to access the study guide and other resources for promoting the series in your parish, visit kofc.org/intothebreach.