Among the theological terms that the Second Vatican Council elevated into prominence, perhaps none is so significant for the Council’s theology and overall message as “Paschal Mystery.” In a key paragraph of its Pastoral Constitution on the Church Gaudium et spes, the Council posits the Paschal Mystery as the pattern for the entirety of the Christian life–and particularly for Christian suffering (see GS 22). This article will explore the importance that the Council’s use of the term had, and continues to have, for the Catholic understanding of suffering, healing, and transformation in Christ.
For many centuries, from the age of the Counter-Reformation until the eve of Vatican II, Catholic teaching on redemption was, in a word, passiocentric. Whereas numerous commentators from the patristic period to St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized that Jesus accomplished his work of salvation through not only his dying but also his rising, later teachings focused on the Passion to the exclusion of the Resurrection. Popular piety portrayed sufferers as victim souls who continually lived Jesus’s Passion and death.
It is true that, during the time leading up to the Second Vatican Council, popes often cited Colossians 1:24, which speaks of rejoicing in suffering. However, in doing so, they neglected to emphasize that that union with the suffering Christ means, in the here and now, union with the risen Christ. Without that necessary connection being made, it was difficult for the faithful to see how suffering could have any connection with joy.
The first hints of a change in Magisterial language on suffering came under Pius XII, particularly with his 1956 encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart, Haurietis aquas. Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, also promulgated an encyclical on the Sacred Heart, Miserentissimus Redemptor. We can see where the language on suffering shifted if we compare the two documents.
Pius XI focused his encyclical on reparatio—the duty of the faithful to make reparation to Jesus’s Sacred Heart. In other words, Pius XI was interested in suffering as penance. In contrast, Pius XII, although upholding the importance of penance, focused his encyclical on redamatio—the duty of the faithful to make an act of reciprocal love to the Sacred Heart.
In the Scholastic theology that Pius XII knew, penance is associated with the first stage of justification—removal of sin—which has for its cause Jesus’s Passion and death. Return of love is associated with the second stage of justification—God’s infusion of sanctifying grace into the soul—which has for its cause Jesus’s Resurrection. The scriptural sources for this teaching are Romans 4:25, which speaks of Jesus, “who was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification,” and Romans 6:4, which says, “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”
So it is with Pius XII that we begin to see the Magisterium reflect upon how suffering facilitates union with Christ for its own sake, and not merely for the sake of expiating sin or filling up the Church’s treasury of grace. Moreover, Pius XII engineers this shift in Haurietis aquas within the context of discussing the Christian’s union with Christ in his mysteries (a topic he developed in his earlier encyclicals Mystici corporis and Mediator Dei).
The Second Vatican Council in its first major document, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum concilium, reframes Pius’s account of union with Christ in his mysteries by introducing the term “Paschal Mystery,” which it defines as Christ’s passion, resurrection, and ascension (SC 5).
Amazingly, when the term “Paschal Mystery” was first proposed, this ancient understanding struck some of the Council Fathers as a novelty. They protested the term because they associated redemption exclusively with Christ’s passion. According to Josef Jungmann, S.J., who participated as a peritus (theological adviser), the Council Fathers responded by including in its account of the Paschal Mystery a passage from the Easter Preface—”dying, he destroyed our death and, rising, he restored our life”—to validate the role of the Resurrection in redemption.
Sacrosanctum concilium teaches that the Sunday Mass recalls the Paschal Mystery in its entirety—“the Passion, the Resurrection, and the glorification of the Lord Jesus” (SC 106). What this tells us is that the Council does not consider the Resurrection in isolation from the other mysteries, as though its memory were intended to erase that of the Passion. Rather, the Council is intent to present the mysteries of Christ as a unified whole.
What the Council is effectively saying is that the faithful at Mass encounter the Passion, Death, and Resurrection not only in their effects, but also, in a qualified sense, in their very act. “Recalling thus the mysteries of redemption,” it states, “the Church opens to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present for all time, and the faithful are enabled to lay hold upon them and become filled with saving grace” (SC 102).
Closely bound up with the Council’s understanding of mystery is its understanding of memory, for it is through the liturgical anamnesis that the mysteries are re-presented to the faithful (SC 47, 102, 106, 108). Here we are touching upon an area of conciliar teaching that intersects with the Ignatian tradition and is of great importance for Pope Francis’s spirituality. Union with Christ in his mysteries means union with Christ in his memories.
It could be said that, in a certain sense, according to the Council, the memory of the Christian at worship mediates his or her encounter with Christ, for it is through “devoutly recalling” Jesus’s saving work of the past that the faithful are able to celebrate it in the present (SC 102). If that is indeed the case—and I believe it is—then Vatican II’s spirituality has profound implications for the worshiper whose memory includes trauma.
When I, as an abuse survivor, encounter Jesus’s passion as I worship at Mass, I do so through the very same mental faculty through which I harbor the memories that are a source of my own passion. But whereas my passion is ongoing (for my memories of past trauma are always part of me, even if I am not bringing them to mind at a given moment), Jesus’s passion has come to a definitive end with his death and resurrection. And I likewise encounter Jesus’s death and resurrection at every Mass, dying with him and rising with him.
Thus, if in worship I encounter Jesus’s death and resurrection through my memory just as I encounter his passion through my memory, then my own memory cannot end with my own passion. It has to continue with my rebirth in Christ—the renewal that began with my own baptism and is intensified with each encounter with him, which will culminate one day in my own resurrection and divinization.
I see the Council reinforce this spiritual understanding as it emphasizes that the faithful’s entire lives are to be permeated with this liturgical memory. For example, why do “we ask the Lord in the sacrifice of the Mass that ‘receiving the offering of the spiritual victim,’ he may fashion us for himself ‘as an eternal gift’”? According to the Council, it is to fulfill St. Paul’s dictum that “we must always bear about in our body the dying of Jesus, so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodily frame” (SC 12). The liturgical action brings the faithful to interiorize the Paschal Mystery and to carry their remembrance of Jesus—whom they not only recall but really receive in the Eucharist—forward into their every action or suffering.
This understanding of the Paschal Mystery, and the faithful’s participation in it, that the Council puts forth in Sacrosanctum concilium sets the stage for the Council’s use of the same term in Gaudium et spes. There, the Council locates the redemptive meaning of suffering within the mutual gift of self that takes place between the suffering Christian and the risen Christ (GS 22 and 24). We read in article 22,
Pressing upon the Christian to be sure, are the need and the duty to battle against evil through manifold tribulations and even to suffer death. But, linked with the paschal mystery and patterned on the dying Christ, he will hasten forward to resurrection in the strength which comes from hope.
In other words, the suffering Christian in her union with Christ, living the Paschal Mystery through her baptism and through the life of the Church, contains within her a spiritual dynamism—a movement of the Holy Spirit directing her to follow in the footsteps of Christ. This dynamism gives her fortitude because, through her consciousness of the Father’s love that comes from Christ through the Spirit, she knows she is made for heaven.
Thus, the Council’s teaching on the dynamic effect of union with the Paschal Mystery provides a liturgical lens for understanding its teachings on the universal call to holiness. Moreover, if the Council’s teachings on the Paschal Mystery are viewed together with its teachings on suffering, it is possible to identify a sequence of kairos moments that map out a process of spiritual growth. The Christian who embarks upon this process becomes empowered to live out his or her call to holiness through an experience of the redemptive dimension of suffering.
These kairos moments may be identified as follows:
- The Christian participating in the liturgical life of the Church “[lays] hold upon” the mysteries of redemption and thereby “become filled with saving grace” (SC 102).
- This saving grace, received through the encounter with Christ in the liturgy, enables the Christian to interiorize the Paschal Mystery and carry forth its remembrance into his or her every action or suffering (SC 106, see also SC 12).
- As the Christian becomes conformed to Christ through this gift of grace, she is interiorly impelled to make a return of divine love, pouring herself out to God and neighbor in cooperation with Christ’s own gift of self. In other words, the Christian chooses to share in Christ’s kenosis (LG 41, cf. SC 12, LG 8, LG 34)—making a gift of self that, as with Christ’s own, is perfected by suffering (GS 37, cf. GS 22, GS 24).
This last point is central to understanding what is, from a pastoral perspective, the most important development achieved by the Council with respect to the theology of suffering. The Council opens a path to understanding suffering not merely as a meaningful experience, but as a meaning-making experience. Suffering becomes a means of communicating divine love in an irreducibly personal manner. In this way, the very experience that philosophies of despair deride as dehumanizing becomes instead an expression of human identity on its highest level—identity in Christ.
Dawn Eden Goldstein, S.T.D., is the author of several books, including My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints. She lives in Washington, D.C.