Q. Dear Father: I grew up with a mom who always told me to “offer it up” whenever anything went wrong. Now that I am an adult, I wonder if maybe I need a more grown-up understanding of “offering up” sacrifices. What exactly does that phrase mean and how can I put it into practice? — Sara in Louisiana
Dear Sara: I found myself with a little extra time on my hands to respond to your question while on vacation last June.
Few things put the kibosh on a summer vacation quite like a summer cold. And there I was, just a few days into vacation — beach, sun, biking, friends — and my chest started tightening up. Shortly, I was on an antibiotic, sitting on the porch of my summer rental with bronchitis, nursing a fever, and watching others whiz by on their bikes on the way to the beach.
I was very tempted to mope.
But then I remembered your question — and was immediately reminded, of course, that I needed to “offer it up.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us the framework within which to understand the theological foundation of the practice of “offering it up.”
The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the “one mediator between God and men” [1 Timothy 2:5]. But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man, “the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery” is offered to all men (618).
That framework, in other words, is the mystery of redemptive suffering. Christ makes us — members of his Mystical Body — participants in that redemptive self-offering of Christ our head. St. Paul left the Church a vivid and poignant understanding of just what that means when he insisted:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church (Colossians 1:24).
And St. John Paul II summed up the relationship between Christ’s redemptive sacrifice and our mysterious participation in it with these words:
In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ (Salvifici Doloris, 19).
In most of her apparitions, particularly at Fatima, Our Lady also has repeatedly reminded us of this mysterious participation in redemptive suffering. The three visionaries of Fatima received her message as a call, in part, to live the rest of their lives finding frequent opportunities to offer acts of reparation for sinners.
The Church has long recognized that some of the baptized are invited mysteriously to a veritable vocation of redemptive suffering in a very high degree. We often refer to these privileged individuals as “victim souls.” They have even at times been blessed with mystical phenomena such as the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) or living for years solely on the Eucharist. Saints such as Padre Pio and Sr. Faustina Kowalska come to mind.
Normally, however, our Lord seems to delight in our generous “offering up” of the lesser daily trials he permits in our lives. The Daily Offering prayer captures what should be ideally our habitual attitude of offering the “prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day in union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world.” To live with that attitude is something beautiful in God’s eyes. Catholic priests, I might add, called as they are to be agents of penance, reparation, and expiation and instruments of Divine Mercy, are particularly responsible for being living examples of such an attitude. A readiness to offer up sacrifices is the best antidote to a mentality of complaining, irritability, negativity, and cynicism.
In fact, it is possible over time with God’s grace to embrace — even with joy — the unpleasant surprises, setbacks, apparent failures, frustrations, and hurts that come our way precisely because we experience how profoundly God can work in and through them for our good and the good of the Church. By offering these things up, uniting them to the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus, we trust that God the Father mysteriously brings about some good somewhere in the Mystical Body as a fruit of our generous offering. Yet we benefit as well, as he simultaneously turns our sufferings, big or small, into opportunities for personal growth and holiness.