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Catholic Focus: Guilt, Suffering & Living Only for Heaven? I of II

July 29, 2013 by  
Filed under Catholic Spirituality, Fr. Bartunek, Suffering

Dear Father John: I admit I am fairly new to the spiritual life. But God has been doing amazing things, and I really want to keep growing. But I keep getting stuck on one thing. I just don't get that, as Why do Catholics Emphasize Guilt for post on suffering and guiltCatholics, we are meant to spend SO much time focused on suffering! Suffering and guilt…Didn't Jesus bear the cross so we wouldn't have to? When I am suffering, of course, I seek God, but in my heart, I still believe that earth is not only a spiritual classroom, but it is also a magnificent gift! Am I wrong to love earth? Can't I enjoy earth now and experience Heaven later (since eternity is, after all, so long)? I am sure you get my question, but I’ll put it in a nutshell, anyway. Why do Catholics put so much emphasis on guilt, suffering and living only for Heaven?

Even in your short question, I can feel the passion you have for God, and for life. How much that must give joy to his heart! You are clearly giving room for the seed of his grace to put down deep roots in your heart. You can be sure that with roots so deep, his grace will bear wonderful fruit in your life. I will try to answer your question, but I sense that there is more to it than you actually expressed. And so my answer may be inadequate.

Thinking too Much
Let’s start with your presupposition. I can’t say that I agree with it. You basically affirm that Catholics spend too much time thinking about suffering, guilt, and living only for heaven. I am not so sure. And in fact, if a Catholic did indeed spend too much time thinking about suffering and guilt, that would be unhealthy – as you imply. But on the other hand, it would also be unhealthy to blind oneself to the reality of suffering and the reality of evil, and the spiritual warfare that we are engaged in because of those realities. It would be foolish and Pollyannaish to ignore them, to pretend that they are irrelevant. What we need is balance: we need to think sufficiently about every part of the tapestry of God’s revelation, including suffering and sin and guilt and evil and the cross and eternal life, but not excluding joy and peace and beauty and all the good things of this passing world.

The Truth Will Set You Free
Our Catholic faith actually frees us, as no other creed does, from obsessing about the bad things (the guilt and suffering). Because it puts them in context. It gives them their proper meaning and weight. Good Friday is only meaningful in light of Easter Sunday. And the rhythm of “Good Friday – Easter Sunday; Good Friday – Easter Sunday; Good Friday – Easter Sunday” is the warp and woof of life on our pilgrimage towards heaven. Without the Catholic faith, one really has to become either a pessimist, like the Buddhists (life is suffering – in life, by definition, only Good Fridays exist), or a hedonist (life has no meaning, so just live for passing pleasure pure and simple, and ignore the Good Fridays). Either extreme is false, and thus unhealthy.

From a Catholic perspective, we are given the strength and wisdom to face life’s crosses without being overwhelmed by them. We are also given the strength to rejoice in the midst of them. This is why joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit – not grumpiness, pessimism, or sorrow. But mature joy exists within a fallen world. To belittle the reality of suffering and evil is as unhealthy as being obsessed by it.

Adorning the Cross
Nevertheless, we are not Taoists – the dark and the light are not equal: the light is eternal, the darkness is passing. St Teresa of Avila once said that a sad saint is a bad saint. And that is solid Catholic stuff. And the most inspiring Catholics I know do not spend too much time thinking about suffering and guilt – they spend just the right time on those subjects. They walk with Christ through the Gethsemanes of life, and they also share the Resurrections with him. And, through it all, a deep interior joy, joie de vivre, permeates every moment and every relationship and every activity. This is the maturity we seek, the spiritual maturity that God is leading us all towards one that accepts reality in its fullness, which includes the crosses of life in a fallen world, but adorns them with the gold and jewels of faith, hope, and love, of the Resurrection – just like the beautiful monstrances and crucifixes that we use in worship.

In part II, we will look at living only for heaven and evangelization as teaching the art of living.


Art for this post on Why do Catholics focus on suffering and guilt and living for heaven?: Crucificado En La Iglesia Del Convento De Santa Teresa En Avila (Crucified One in the Church of the Convent of Saint Teresa in Avila), photographed by Zarateman, 7 December 2010 own work, CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • $1650412

    Thank you, Father!! Whenever you address this type of topic I feel like all the ballast in my spiritual boat gets rightly redistributed- and evened out. I particularly appreciate this today! :o)

  • Desert Sun Art

    Great response and I know there will be a second part, but the questioner also should understand that Jesus did not bear the cross so we wouldn’t have to. Jesus gave us an example that we must follow. He tells us in scripture that to be His disciple we must pick up our cross daily.

  • ThirstforTruth

    I think we all as Catholics try to get a proper perspective on these issues and
    Father’s words here are most helpful. For me, I find that my sufferings, crosses, are made bearable by the reality of Christ wilingly entering into them with me by His own cross and sufferings. He took them all onto Himself and gives them everlasting meaning. No suffering is ever wasted or rendered meaningless because of His intervention. There in lies the consolation of His Cross and Good Friday. As Father rightly points out here, all would be meaningless with the Easter Sunday, His Resurrection, wherein lies all our hope for a better time and happier life.

  • patricia

    If this makes any sense at all in my life right now I find strength in suffering in union with Christ. I find often I am being carried and lifted when I don’t have the energy myself. The Eucharist Holy Comminion a daily basis gives me this strength. This is a truth if we unite our guilt shame contrition and suffering God gives us strength he carries us. We may be rid with guilt and shame at Jesus feet. But it is God who lifts us up to his most merciful heart.

  • nosidam

    I was told as a lifelong Catholic to meditate on Christ’s Passion daily. I do that and wonder if I ought to stop? I think it so saddens me I am becoming ultra sensitive to anyone’s suffering. I can cry so easily. Wonder if it is making me depressed? I thought we need to be joyous in the Resurrection? Also sitting in an adoration chapel almost daily also can make me feel close to God but alone from people. I do live alone and have some medical issues.
    Maybe I need a more engaged life but I also thought we should not get caught up in worldly things. I think some saints prayed their lives away and focused on the sick and poor.
    I am supposed to be a saint in the making. But I think that there needs to be a real earthly purpose of joy in being here. Martha and Mary in one sounds good. Jesus seemed to praise Mary more so it makes me want to do less and pray more. This has caused me some isolation. Any ideas?

    • Vickie

      Hello nosidam! I would encourage, and hope others would too, that you first get a Spiritual Director and I also believe your spiritual director will encourage you to get out and serve somewhere in your parish. It might be visiting the sick or helping weed the landscaping, maybe volunteering in children’s catechism classes. God is so Faithful, He will answer when you seek Him. God bless you.

    • nosidam

      Thank you. I think I am going through a transition and some desolation at this time. I have searched for a spiritual director for years. Tried many but non were spiritual enough. I have been active and serving all my life but recently my medical issues have made it hard to do many things. Plus our parish has changed clergy and I am going to a different closer church. I also had a recent financial collapse. Lots on my plate and I have not mentioned it all. I think I feel like my life is at a weird standstill. With troubles hitting me from all over. I cannot get motivated and I also think meds for illness play a part.
      So I do agree it would be good to go back to serving. The mission I ran was turned over to another when I got ill. I feel in a limbo. Guess I am waiting too much on the Lord. Every time I go to take action I think I should not since my health is a potential action stopper. Thank you for caring. I am not as young as I used to be!! Haha
      But God can use me still! I know. God bless you Vickie.

  • $21510458

    Unfortunately, too many Catholics still focus on suffering and guilt. The lingering Jansenism in those over 50 and all the dissidents, like Don Quixote, fighting those windmills, rather than finding out what we actually teach. Both, merely show how their faith is based in laziness and hearsay rather than desire for God and the truth.

    • LizEst

      1Tim 3:15, please be careful of lumping folks together. Yes, some people don’t want to grow their faith. But, others, have a simple faith based on what they were taught. And, not all have the capacity to understand other than that. God alone knows their hearts. I hope you are doing something to help educate and catechize others in a way that mirrors Christ, who is meek and humble of heart. This manner of instruction goes a long way to helping dispel the darkness. May God bless you and give you peace.

      • $21510458

        Wow! Thanks for your patronising reply, Liz.

        Maybe you are reading what you want into my comment? I wasn’t talking about souls who’ve been misled or who are in invincible ignorance (but normally want to learn). That is indeed tragic.

        Rather, I was talking about those vociferous souls who talk to me about ‘those old men at the Vatican in dresses’. They base their attack on what they argue the Church was teaching ‘pre-Vatican II’ as if still the case – especially those over 50 who claim they ‘know what it was really like’ – and whom they accuse of messing up their lives with ‘all that pre Vatican II guilt and hell stuff’, and so advocate the ‘Church of nice’ against it – especially in RCIA – as aggressively as Michael Voris condemns it.

        They simply continue to attack, and thereby perpetuate, these erroneous Catholic Urban Legends with their tales about ‘hell, suffering, guilt, and nasty nuns with rulers’, and don’t want to hear something that might disabuse them of this convenient, vincible ignorance, despite the Catechism clearly clearing up any misunderstanding. It seems similar to those who now perpetuate a notion that the abuse scandals are a good reason for leaving the church – that because it’s a commonly held belief, it must be a valid one…

        Despite not being a catechist, I do indeed try my best to help those who want to learn their faith and hold a little group at my home. I have bought the Catholicism series and the Great Adventure Bible Timeline DVD series, among other resources – at great expense – as I am on a low income. This is not at all popular in some circles. 🙂

        • LizEst

          I’ll pray for you. I did not read into your comment. You clearly said, and I quote, “The lingering Jansenism in those over 50 and all the dissidents, like Don Quixote, fighting those windmills, rather than finding out what we actually teach.” If you meant “those vociferous souls who talk to me…” then you should have said so instead of lumping people together. Please be a little bit more specific when you write and then people will understand you better.

          If you get worked up about this stuff, then I respectfully suggest you write your statement, spend ten minutes in prayer asking the Holy Spirit to inspire you to make sure that what you write is said in all charity, then come back and see if it really says what is best for the Body of Christ.

          • $21510458

            I’m doing my best – I’m not as articulate or clever as you. I know I have a long way to go.

          • LizEst

            I would include myself in the long way to go category. As to the articulate and clever, please know that the glory goes to the Lord.

    • Gabrielle Renoir

      I am a theology student at a Catholic college, and believe me, the Catholic faith is not rooted in laziness and hearsay, or heresy. As for the truth, Catholics practice the faith handed by Christ himself to the apostles. One can’t get more authentic than that.

  • opinionated1945

    I thank God for Fr. Bartunek and his work. This particular piece has deep meaning for me.

  • Gabrielle Renoir

    Jesus didn’t bear the Cross so we don’t have to. He bore the Cross to atone for our sins. The enormity of sin brought into the world by our original parents was so great that God needed a perfect sacrifice for it in order to atone. Christ asked us to take up our Cross and follow him. We all have Crosses to bear in this imperfect life, but if we bear them as Christ did, in perfect submission to the Father, our reward will be eternal life. As a devout Catholic and a theology student, I don’t spend all of my time thinking of sin and suffering, but I do think of it. I think it’s necessary to recognize the enormity of sin that Adam and Eve brought into the world and the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice. I love God’s creation, though, and I do enjoy it and find much joy and peace in the world as well.

  • GAartist

    By meditating on Jesus’ suffering, we are not only more understanding of,and grateful for his sacrifice, but more empathetic. Empathetic towards others, and hopefully not focusing on ourselves and our own miseries. Healthy empathy is a fruit of true love of another. But when we do have true personal suffering, we need only look at the cross and know he’s with us and WE can get through it.

    As far as guilt goes, (for a well formed conscience), it’s only use is to propel us to make a change…repent, amend actions, look at the root cause and highlight it so when that sin creeps back into our life, the warning bell can go off and get us back on track. The Good of guilt is it brings us to the sacramental graces of confession. We not only heal, but grow.

    • LizEst

      Well put. Thanks GArtist. God bless you!

  • Erin Pascal

    This is a very good post Fr. John! It has very good meaning in it in which I can deeply relate to. I learned so much from this post and I hope I can read more really good posts from you again. May God bless you!

  • FrRamil E. Fajardo


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