John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering
— Lessons from a Spiritual Master

by Robert G. Schroeder





book review by Jeffrey Hillard
June 2008


What is it that incites a person to think deeply about suffering? Not just about a minor pain, but about a chronic emotional or physical problem?

What propels a writer to investigate its mystery? These questions may never be satisfyingly answered, but we’re fortunate that Robert G. Schroeder, a young writer and scholar, has attempted a bold, passionate, and very meaningful investigation in his new first book, John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering: Lessons from a Spiritual Master.

One answer is that usually some intimate connection to physical or emotional suffering occurs, made even more prominent, as in the case of Mr. Schroeder, by his frustration that he was the one facing such suffering. The mystery itself is complex, and yet so interwoven in our limited human minds and need for understanding that the nature of suffering is as attached to us as our skin. Either we suffer, or we see or know of someone suffering.

Incarcerated individuals and those people they have affected or victimized typically live daily with some degree of suffering – certainly with pain. The world of incarceration is synonymous with suffering, to a great extent. There are few other terms for incarceration. I suggest that anyone connected to incarceration in any way, even to the point of working with formerly incarcerated persons, read this book. Although Mr. Schroeder does not cite cases of incarceration or crime-oriented victimhood in the book, each page and each of the Six Lessons still matter, because suffering at any stage is a wide-ranging experience. It includes all of us.

Schroeder has written a slim yet significant book on a subject that has been written about for 2,000 years. Why should his book make a difference? Or, better, is there anything different about Schroeder’s perspective on suffering? Yes, this is a different perspective. Yes, the book does make a difference. It contributes new insights into why suffering is a spiritual phenomenon, leading directly to the greater phenomenon of healing. It is a brave book, and because each of us has suffered in some context, it can and should be read regardless of Schroeder’s exposition on a legendary Pope’s writings.

Schroeder was actually not prepared to encounter suffering the way he did. He does not sugar-coat his physical ailments or emotional setbacks, yet he doesn’t belabor their effects either. He had been mercifully healthy most of his life, though, even at his relatively young age, he began to experience turmoil: he and his wife saw the death of two of their children to miscarriages. He suffered a deteriorating physical problem. He was seeking more faith; he was questioning, as one would, “Why me?”

A devout Catholic, Schroeder latched onto Pope John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris, a letter filled with wisdom, as the Pope responds to and boldly interprets suffering – its mystery, its foundation in human life. This is why the book is significant: Schroeder opens himself up by trusting that John Paul’s comforting words will connect him more deeply with what he, too, is grappling with spiritually.

As readers, we feel we are exploring the Pope’s and Schroeder’s meditations and journeys. It is an inviting journey. Schroeder writes extremely clearly and vividly. This is a story, in addition to being valuable scholarship. He also utilizes other anecdotal sources of suffering, such as those told to him by acquaintances. He patiently renders these stories. In doing so, he also deflects attention from himself. The trap in writing a book like this would be the tendency for a writer to wallow in self-pity. Schroeder is so intelligent a writer that self-pity never once rises, nor does any move on his part to one believe he’s suffered more than anyone else. He keeps in perspective each Lesson in the exploration.  

Schroeder creates very accessible details inside of his scholarship. In recounting one family’s tragic encounter with sudden death, he parallels the aftermath with an insight John Paul might have raised: “John Paul writes that ‘in the eyes of the world, suffering, illness, and death are frightening, futile, and destructive…we find ourselves before an enigma…it can make us cruel, it can embitter not only the one who is directly affected but also those who are close to him, and who, powerless to bring aid, suffer on account of that powerlessness.”

This passage comes one-third of the way through the book, yet it’s a cornerstone on which Schroeder relies for most of his writing: things, often horrific, wild, and untimely, happen to us and close to us. We are sometimes victims. We are sometimes not immune from even the slight difficulties that cause emotional or physical pain. Look around: someone is hurting and trying to overcome. The inmate, for instance, experiences great psychic pain. Suffering is tantamount to incarceration. Throughout the book, Schroeder makes real articulate sense of the mystery.

In other words, suffering is beyond human reason, as John Paul says. And, in other words, we must ultimately ask, desire, and go to God for consolation. A hospital, rehab, or counseling will only get us so far. Will God provide answers? Frequently, he does. John Paul addresses this, emphasizing, too, that a non-answer means little in God’s wisdom. He knows each inch of one’s body and mind that is ailing, and we should trust this with every inch of our despair. It is called constant faith, and we can’t put a definition of it in a box.

This book is arranged in “Lessons.” Lesson number Six offers the largest test. What has Schroeder done with his own suffering? He writes: “‘Lord, I consecrate all of the frustration and sadness that I bear in my struggle to overcome this sin to you, in union with your saving Cross, for the benefit of my [newborn] daughter.’ In that prayer I received consolation and strength, knowing that my pain became an efficacious sign of love that opened a window through which God’s gifts could reach our baby girl.”

He’d felt love before from God, but the love intensified after this commitment. It renewed his mind and spirit immediately. Schroeder physically felt God’s grace penetrate him. He presents such wise and no-frills passages in this deepest Lesson. For being such a young writer, Schroeder understands that love emanates from suffering. It’s beyond our human understanding. It transcends ordinary pain. We have to believe this, if we’re to deal in any limited way with any aspect of pain and “overcome it.”

We can be extremely thankful that this book, John Paul II and the Meaning of Suffering: Lessons from a Spiritual Master, quietly and profoundly teaches us more about the mystery, and so brings us much closer to grasping painful experiences in our lives.


book cover