The suffering of loneliness

By Simone Rizkallah

This is the sixth in a series of seven meditations examining the Christian meaning of suffering according to the thought of Pope St. John Paul II in his 1984 apostolic letter “Salvifici Doloris.”

Saint John Paul II writes that “sacred Scripture is a great book about suffering” (“Salvifici Doloris,” Par. 6). He goes on to list examples of the ways in which we suffer from the Old Testament:

  • Danger of death.
  • The death of one’s own children.
  • Infertility.
  • Exile.
  • Persecution and discrimination.
  • Loneliness and abandonment.

Among other various circumstances, the Holy Father mentions the suffering experienced in grappling with the mystery of seeing bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. Our Lord taught: for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45).

Among all these signs of suffering, right now, the United States and the West in general are suffering from an epidemic of loneliness. St. Teresa of Calcutta, in the 1970s, said this: “I have been to many countries and seen much poverty and suffering. Everywhere I go people tell me of their hardships and struggles, and ask for help, and I give what I can. But of all the countries I have been to, the poorest one I have been to is America. Because America suffers most from the poverty of loneliness.”

The suffering of loneliness in the United States has only gotten worse. Earlier this year, the Surgeon General’s report noted that this massive social disconnect causes health risks comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The Church has always taught the human person is a body and soul composite. Nothing like having scientific data such as this to support a solid Christian anthropology. What happens (or in this case, doesn’t happen) in our souls literally affects the body, increasing the risk of premature death by 26% as well as the likelihood of heart disease, stroke, anxiety, depression and dementia.

Jesus understood and experienced human feelings of loneliness and abandonment since He was fully man as well as fully God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Par. 466). At the height of his Passion, he cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). John Paul II explains it like this in paragraph 18 of his letter: “Together with this horrible weight, encompassing the ‘entire’ evil of the turning away from God which is contained in sin, Christ, through the divine depth of His filial union with the Father, perceives in a humanly inexpressible way this suffering which is the separation, the rejection by the Father, the estrangement from God. But precisely through this suffering, He accomplishes the redemption, and can say as He breathes His last: ‘It is finished’ (50).”

It is a consolation that the God of the universe can truly claim to relate to the worst of our loneliness. And it is precisely by entering into the experience of “estrangement” that our Lord made it possible for us to enter into eternal life, which is exactly the opposite of existential orphanhood.

The less our world knows Jesus, the lonelier it will become. Who can we introduce to our Lord in this next season? Who can we invite to Mass with us? It has never been lonelier and, therefore, it has never been easier in a certain sense to evangelize the true remedy to our loneliness. 

Simone Rizkallah is the director of program growth at Endow Groups, a Catholic women’s apostolate that calls women together to study important documents of the Catholic Church.

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