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An Approach to Suffering in the Pastoral Care of the Sick

Most of us spend some time with a serious illness, which often becomes what ends our life on earth. A seriously ill person experiences pain, loss of purpose, and concern about their relationship with God. A gentle discussion about possible reasons for pain, ways to discover purpose, and consolation from God’s goodness can be of great help to them.


Illness brings with it physical pain, which can be overwhelming. For example, someone could be a burn victim, or have paralyzing pain from a spinal cord injury, or another condition that is greatly painful. Pain is a kind of punishment, something to suffer on behalf of others, and even something that can unite us to God. Having some understanding of these reasons for pain can do much to help a person endure the discomfort.

First, pain is a kind of general punishment on humanity, since it is a consequence of original sin. Suffering can easily feel personally punitive as well, so it is best not to use this point to start a conversation with someone who is suffering. As a pastoral minister, I am not in a position to judge whether someone is suffering due to their own sins. In some situations, though, such as obesity or liver disease caused by lack of self-care, it can help to explain how pain can serve as a guide to what is virtuous[1]. Then, it would be good to start by asking about the patient’s backstory, and helping them identify what they could do differently. It also may happen that a patient presses the issue of why we suffer, as I have experienced once in hospital ministry. In that case I would include punishment in the explanation of suffering in a way that is not accusatory.

We may suffer as a personal correction, but also for the sake of others, which can happen in several ways. For one, it may be in order to offer the pain on behalf of someone else. Generally, it is helpful to offer our pain to God, bringing our experience to Him through thoughts and words of prayer, since He is allowing the experience for some good reason. Since that reason is often mysterious to us, we may also think of someone or something else to offer our pain for, as an intercessory prayer. In any case, it is important to keep an inner dialogue with God going, since He is the only fulfillment of our desire for healing and peace, and focusing on Him, we hope to reach that fulfillment in Heaven.

Read more at Catholic Exchange 

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