The City of Rome is a place literally lined with cobblestones. On any given street or piazza you will find thousands of them. Yet there is one cobblestone in that city that is different from all the others. It is a small red one placed neatly on the right side of St. Peter’s Square. That red cobblestone commemorates the event that took place there on May 13, 1981. It was on that date, in that very spot, that Pope John Paul II was shot and almost killed.
Perhaps you remember that tragic event and the precarious days that followed; how the pope received a tainted blood transfusion that nearly ended his life instead of saving it. It was a long, hard recovery that demanded every ounce of stamina and determination that the Holy Father could muster (and we know he had no short supply of that).
A few years after his recovery, Pope John Paul II met his attacker face to face and forgave him. It was within six weeks of that encounter that he released an apostolic letter entitled, Salvifici Doloris, On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering.
It is by far one of his most personal and spiritual reflections (almost every footnote is a biblical reference on suffering). But it is also one of the most important for all of us, because we all experience suffering. Every one of us has a red cobblestone—or perhaps several of them—in our lives. It may be the death of a loved one; a broken relationship; disappointment or discouragement; an illness; an addiction; sorrow about the past; fear about the future.
And just as universal is the question that we have all asked at one time or another, either out loud or directly to God Himself in prayer:
Why is God allowing this to happen?
Why do I have to shoulder this cross, and not some other?
Why is this happening at this time in my life?
Today, more than any other day in the year, we reflect on God’s response to that question. To be sure, it is no ordinary response. God does not answer the question in a way that we might want Him to, or in the way that we would expect. But His response is one that changes everything. Good Friday allows us to recognize God’s ultimate response to our suffering in the person of Jesus Christ who suffers for us on the cross.
In the person of Jesus Christ, God takes on our humanity and enters directly into our suffering. He takes on our own afflictions and suffers for our sins. As we hear in our first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured, while we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins; upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.
God’s response to our suffering is the suffering of His own Son, Jesus Christ. That response, says Pope John Paul II in Salvifici Doloris, does two things: it redeems the world and transforms the entire experience and meaning of suffering itself.
In the cross of Christ not only is the redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed.
—Salvifici Doloris, #19
Our red cobblestones, difficult and painful though they may be, are not meaningless. They are not without some value. In fact, they have infinite value. We can unite our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ and participate in His work of redeeming the world we live in.
Today we come before the cross and venerate the instrument that opened for us the way to eternal life. Let us also bring before Him our red cobblestones, laying them at the foot of the cross, knowing that God has given us the strength to carry them, and the grace to unite them to Himself for the salvation of the world.