I’ve often struggled with the concept of offering it up. If you’re a cradle Catholic, you’ve probably heard it from your parents or grandparents whenever the going gets tough. Sprain your knee? Offer it up. Have a bad day at school? Offer it up. Have to sit through a boring visit at your great Aunt Mildred’s house? You better offer that up too!
But the concept, more often than not, went over my head even until somewhat recently. For those that were not raised in the Faith, the issue of offering up one’s suffering for a specific intention or in reparation for the sins of others becomes a real head scratcher.
Amidst the joys and happy times we experience, we are also presented with sorrow and suffering. That’s just the human condition and the result of the fall of our first parents. So often though—especially in the United States—we seem to make it a point to do everything we possibly can to avoid suffering.
What Is It Good For?
Consider the following: The United States only makes up five percent of the global population. Despite this, approximately eighty percent of the world’s opioid (pain reliever) supply is consumed here. In 2015 alone, around three-hundred million pain prescriptions were written for Americans. And in Europe, we see a certain escapism from suffering with more and more countries accepting euthanasia, even for children.
It’s as if the world has eschewed that old saying of “no pain, no gain,” and that’s largely because the world no longer sees what one could possibly gain from suffering. And so we avoid it like the plague (and by “we” I include many Christians as well, not excluding myself).
It’s Part of Being Christian
But this is not the way that the Christian looks at suffering. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, that young Doctor of the Church, shows us otherwise:
“How I thirst for Heaven — that blessed habitation where our love for Jesus will have no limit! But to get there we must suffer… we must weep… Well, I wish to suffer all that shall please my Beloved.”
At first glance that sounds pretty intense, but this notion of embracing suffering is biblical. As St. Paul says:
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine” (Philippians 1:29-30).
It’s part of becoming a Christian.
“All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3).
Suffering with Love
Our Lord Jesus’ death entailed much suffering, and it is this (along with his Resurrection, of course) that we are baptized into. His suffering was redemptive, so naturally, ours can be too. Unsurprisingly, the following question is often asked: Why must we suffer if Christ’s atonement paid the price for our sins already? How can one unite their suffering to Jesus’ suffering, especially in the way that the Divine Mercy Chaplet puts it, that is, offering Jesus’ Body and Blood to God the Father “in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world”? Fortunately for us among the laity that have these honest questions, the Church and her saints hold the answers. Let’s look to them again. In the chapter on suffering in his catechetical instructions, St. John Vianney looks at suffering in two ways:
“Whether we will [it] or not, we must suffer. There are some who suffer like the good thief, and others like the bad thief. They both suffered equally. But one knew how to make his sufferings meritorious, he accepted them in the spirit of reparation, and turning towards Jesus crucified, he received from His mouth these beautiful words: ‘This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.’ The other, on the contrary, cried out, uttered imprecations and blasphemies, and expired in the most frightful despair. There are two ways of suffering – to suffer with love, and to suffer without love.”
When suffering with love, we can make that love redemptive. If there’s no love involved, then the world is right: suffering is useless and pointless and should be avoided at all costs. But now we get into the Christian view of suffering. This is why the concept of uniting our sufferings to our Lord’s suffering is so important. Jesus makes our suffering redemptive and meritorious. Pope St. John Paul II lays it out in his encyclical dedicated to explaining the power of redemptive suffering, "Salvifici Doloris" (emphases in original):
“[T]he witnesses of the New Covenant speak of the greatness of the Redemption, accomplished through the suffering of Christ. The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ (SD 19).”
Think of it this way. When you obtain an indulgence, you are able to offer that indulgence for yourself or for a soul in purgatory. Now the indulgence doesn’t remit or take away sin, as the sacrament of confession does, but it does remit the punishment for our sins. That’s one reason why we are given penance after confession. If we break a window during a game of baseball, and have already asked for and received the forgiveness of the owner, we still have to repair the damage to the window.
For the Love of Crosses
It’s similar with redemptive suffering, except we are able to make up for the mistakes of both the dead and the living. And how do we make up for those mistakes, for those sins that wound the Sacred Heart of Jesus? By making sacrifice. By making reparation, as Our Lady of Fatima so often spoke of. Now of course, the greatest sacrifice of all is renewed daily on our altars during the Holy Mass. You’ll notice that every Mass is said for a specific intention, either for the repose of the soul of the deceased in purgatory, or for the living.
When we are at Mass, we participate in that one sacrifice at the altar. Now there can be no sacrifice without suffering. So when we make a small sacrifice, be it abstaining from meat, not eating in between meals, or giving up music during a long car ride, we deny ourselves. We suffer, albeit in a relatively small way, but it is suffering nonetheless. And as St. John Paul points out, that suffering is made redemptive (either for our own soul or for the soul of another) by Jesus Christ.
St. John Vianney continues:
“How beautiful it is to offer ourselves every morning in sacrifice to the good God, and to accept everything in expiation of our sins! We must ask for the love of crosses; then they become sweet.”
This is in reference to the “Morning Offering” that many of us may be familiar with. But it’s important to look at it this time with a little more scrutiny. It’s a great way to start our days because it focuses us on the spiritual battle that is being waged every day. We start by saying to our Lord Jesus that we offer up our “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day… in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, for the salvation of souls, [and] the reparation of sins”.
Building Each Other Up
As we discussed above, our sufferings are a sacrifice. So we are uniting our sacrifice with Christ’s sacrifice. But for what purpose? For the purpose of saving souls, and for making up for the sins that men and women have committed. And we do this because at least among the baptized, we all make up one Body of Christ. We are lending a helping hand to our brothers and sisters, and indeed to those as well who have not yet been baptized and accepted our Lord as their Savior. This should hopefully put “offering it up” in a different light for us if we previously didn’t understand what the phrase meant.
Looking to Scripture, St. Paul tells us this:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24).
We can rightly ask, “What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross?!” Many people have this reaction when reading St. Paul’s words here. Well it can only mean one thing. What is lacking is our participation. Christ offers us salvation, but do we accept it or reject it?
Notice St. Paul says that he does all this suffering for the sake of the Church. He’s imprisoned, shipwrecked, and eventually martyred, all for the sake of Christ’s Body. The Communion of Saints make up the Body of Christ, the Church, and it includes every baptized person. Christ is the Head and you and I are the members. We are all integrally connected. This means we can help build each other up. It’s why we pray for one another, or fast during Advent and Lent.
For the Kingdom of God
So when we offer up and unite our sufferings with Christ’s sufferings, we are providing that one thing that is lacking in Christ’s sufferings … our own sufferings, for the conversion of sinners. Being connected to the Body of Christ is a wonderful thing because we can help each other in a real way. Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice does undeniably cover us all, but we make reparation for our sins and the sins of others because Jesus desires our participation.
Now, in this age we live in following the inauguration of the New Covenant by Jesus on the Cross, our sufferings truly mean something of inestimable value through his redemption. Christ can now use that suffering of ours, that reparation that we make, for the good of saving souls. As St. John Paul says, reflecting on 2 Thessalonians 1:4-5:
“Thus to share in the sufferings of Christ is, at the same time, to suffer for the Kingdom of God” (SD 21).
St. Jacinta Marto
For a great example of this suffering, just look to St. Jacinta Marto.
She was the youngest of the three children who received visions of our Lady at Fatima at the age of seven. She died just a few weeks shy of her tenth birthday, but in the time between receiving the visions and her death, she knew very well how important it was to embrace suffering. She also knew that by uniting that suffering to Christ’s, and by offering it to him, she would be working with our Lord to save sinners, as one biography of her life attests:
Jacinta would not miss any opportunity of making sacrifices to obtain the conversion of sinners. When Jacinta would not eat to mortify herself, Lucia would tell her, ‘Jacinta! Come on, now eat!’
‘No. I offer this sacrifice for sinners who overeat.’
And when, already very affected by illness, she would go to Mass during the week, Lucia tried to prevent her: ‘Jacinta, don’t come, you cannot. Today is not Sunday!’
‘It does not matter. I am going for the sinners who do not even go on Sunday.’
Again, keep in mind this saintly girl was not even ten years old. Do we so willingly embrace suffering? Or do we avoid it? If we know how effective our suffering can be for the salvation of souls, by uniting it to Jesus’ Sacrifice on the Cross, how can we justify evading that suffering? He bore his Cross, and we must bear ours.
The Challenge to Imitate Christ
In my own experience, I’ve often had to get into tight spaces, gritting my teeth as I carried out manual labor at work as a tradesman. A lot of the work was repetitive, and it was during these times that I’d offer each action up for the conversion of a specific person; or for the repose of the soul of a dear relative or friend, so that they could enter paradise that much quicker.
During moments like these, and this is no exaggeration, the labor seemed easier as I offered up the work for specific intentions. I simply pray, “Jesus, I offer up this suffering to you, for the good of souls. I enjoin it to your suffering on the Cross, so that I may share in your suffering.” Just making this conscious effort in the form of prayer is enough to make our suffering worthwhile instead of pointless.
The words of St. John Vianney, from his catechesis, should give us much hope. Instead of shirking from sufferings, embrace them. It’s through these sufferings, united to our Lord Jesus’ sufferings, that we bring souls to him. So the next time someone says to you “Offer it up,” you can smile, knowing that in doing so you find yourself in the good company of saints who sought to imitate Christ:
“The Cross gave peace to the world; and it must bring peace to our hearts. All our miseries come from not loving it. The fear of crosses increases them. A cross carried simply, and without those returns of self-love which exaggerate troubles, is no longer a cross. Peaceable suffering is no longer suffering. We complain of suffering! We should have much more reason to complain of not suffering, since nothing makes us more like Our Lord than carrying His Cross. Oh, what a beautiful union of the soul with Our Lord Jesus Christ by the love and the virtue of His Cross!” —St. John Vianney
This article, written by Nicholas LaBanca, was first published on the Ascension Blog. Republished with permission.