Meaning of Death

Pope John Paul II on the Meaning of Life and the Dignity of Suffering

Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych., President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada

Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005. A sea of pilgrims are descending on Rome to pay their last respect to their long-serving, long-suffering spiritual leader. The world is united in celebrating his lifetime extraordinary achievements. Accolades and tributes continue to pour in from all over the world, and significantly, from prominent leaders of other faith traditions. He is described as the greatest pope in modern history, the greatest leader in building a culture of life, the staunch champion of human rights, a towering figure of humanistic force, and a spiritual giant. He is also the most learned, the most intelligent, the most prolific and the most-traveled, and the most beloved Pope the world has ever witnessed.

But all these superlatives cannot truly measure the tremendous impact of this man of faith from Poland on humanity and the world. Here, I just want to pause and briefly reflect on Pope John Paul’s thoughts on the meaning of life and the meaning of death. These two issues have been brought to the forefront of public attention through two historical events: the death of Terri Schiavo and the death of Pope John Paul.

The intrinsic meaning of human life

The intrinsic meaning of life is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Pope John Paul’s 1995 encyclical letter EVANGELIUM VITAE (The Gospel of Life) probably presents his most complete statement on the inherent value and dignity of human life. In the Introduction of this document, he has this to say about the incomparable worth of the human person:

Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree.

A year later, attending an international congress held in Rome on April 22-24, 1996, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the inalienable value of life in his message: “The culture of life is the basis and the inescapable presupposition for the development of every aspect of an authentic ecology of creation”.

To him, life is a process of becoming from “who I am” to “who I ought to be”. It is a process of daily discovery and continued spiritual transformation. Each day provides new insights about divine purpose and guidance. When we are becoming conformed to the image of Christ, then we will be able to proclaim the gospel not only with our words but also with our actions.

Throughout his long career, in old age, in illness, in physical afflictions, and in spite of the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease, he soldiered on, like a rusty freight train propelled by the force of his soul, strength of his faith and the depth of his love for the masses. There was something profoundly touching and uplifting, as we witnessed the frail Pope John struggling to carry on his ministry in spite of his infirmities and severe handicaps. Neither breathing tube nor the feeding tube can hold him back from living his life to its fullest. He has provided a model on how to live out the abundant life promised by Jesus (John 10:10) and quoted in the beginning of EVANGELIUM VITAE.

His 1995 encyclical letter was primarily motivated by the nihilistic tendencies of postmodernism, and other social forces perceived by him as threatening the Church and the culture of life. He also wanted to foster a better relationship between faith and reason, theology and philosophy. He affirmed the value of searching for truth as the foundation for cultures. As a mystic, he realized that there were no clear answers to many important metaphysical questions regarding the meaning of life.

He believed that these questions can only be partially answered by resorting to faith in Christ: “When you wonder about the mystery of yourself, look to Christ, who gives you the meaning of life. When you wonder what it means to be a mature person, look to Christ, who is the fulfillness of humanity. And when you wonder about your role in the future of the world, look to Christ.”

The meaning of suffering

Pope John Paul II, like his Saviour and Lord, was well acquainted with suffering. The loss of his mother in his childhood, the hardships he endured in his youth, the dangerous times of living in Poland under Hitler and the difficulties of the communist years all have shaped his view of suffering. He has meditated on this subject deeply and written frequently on this theme.

His 1984 Apostolic Letter “Salvifici Doloris” (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering) clearly expounds the dignity and the salvic power of suffering. The letter begins with quoting the Apostle Paul: “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).

The Apostle Paul was able to rejoice in suffering, because of his discovery that to suffer is to partake in the salvic suffering of Christ for the benefit of the church. Suffering has meaning and dignity because of its redemptive power and spiritual significance in the context of the sacrifice and passion of Christ. Therefore, the proper human response to suffering is twofold: heart-felt compassion and the imperative of faith:

Suffering evokes compassion; it also evokes respect and in its own way it intimidates. For in suffering is contained the greatness of a specific mystery. This special respect for every form of human suffering must be set at the beginning of what will be expressed here later by the deepest need of the heart and also by the deep imperative of faith.

Pope John Paul II also pointed out that Christ does not explain the mystery of suffering, nor does his give abstract reasons. Christ simply calls his disciples to take up their cross to follow him. By following the example of Christ, his disciples will begin to understand the redemptive value of suffering and experience the joy of fellowshipping with Christ.

This theme was reiterated in 1993, in his Message for the First Annual World Day of the Sick. The pope assured the suffering masses all over the world: “Your sufferings, accepted and borne with unshakable faith, when joined to those of Christ take on extraordinary value for the life of the Church and the good of humanity.”

He further emphasized that suffering can be redemptive not just for the sufferers but for the world: “In the light of Christ’s death and resurrection, illness no longer appears as an exclusively negative event,” he said. “Rather, it is seen as…an opportunity to release love… to transform the whole of human civilization into a civilization of love.”

Throughout his long ministry, especially during the last few months of his life, Pope John Paul II modeled for us the joy of suffering precisely because suffering is God’s gift to the church and to the world. From the first cry of a newborn babe to the last breath of an old person, the long journey is often accompanied by suffering in one form or another. The only way we can go through life with hope and joy is to understand the deep spiritual meaning of suffering as revealed by Christ.


In the context of logotherapy, Dr. Viktor Frankl emphasizes the same positive themes of the inherent meaning of life and the dignity of human suffering. Here, we see the convergence of theology and psychology in the meeting of minds between two great men of modern history. We need to remember their legacy and continue to proclaim the gospel of hope and meaning to a needy world.

Today, many who have never met Pope John Paul II mourn his death for deeper reasons than the loss of a friend or loved one. We grieve the loss of a compassionate presence that has graced our TVs, a clear moral voice in a time of moral confusion and decline, and a strong spiritual leader in an age of rampant consumerism. Many poor people have lost a champion, and many afflicted have lost their counselor and comforter. We mourn also because the world has lost a rare individual, who had so much to offer to the entire humanity even in his dying days.


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