Embodying the Pain of Others

The Shared Pain Model in Catholicism of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries


  • Tine Van Osselaer




Catholicism, stigmatization, intersubjectivity, pain economy, sustitute suffering


Scholars working on Catholic conceptions of pain have primarily emphasized that pain is meaningful according to Catholic teachings. Pain and ailments can be salutary or soul-cleansing illness and injury have meaning; and physical and emotional suffering could be God-given and an opportunity for the soul to grow. Rather than focusing on the individual benefits to be gained through suffering, this article focuses on the intersubjective aspect of Catholic conceptions of pain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Analysing the shared pain model in Catholicism, we show that this social aspect went beyond merely communicating about and perceiving pain: it also included suffering on behalf of others. We explore three case studies of apparent vicarious suffering, focusing on women bearing the wounds of Christ: Walburga Zentner, Marie Jalhay-Munzbach and Therese Neumann. In doing so, we gain a more nuanced understanding of what that shared pain model entailed. More specifically, we will see that this notion of suffering ‘on behalf of others’ not only concerned the latter’s spiritual well-being, with the sufferer atoning for the sins of others. It could also refer to their physical well-being, where the suffering was seen as a means to alleviate the pain of others, with the mystic becoming the substitute for someone else – entailing a transfer of pain. Thus, instead of studying the efforts these women were thought to be making for society as a whole as new Christs, we explore the more intimate social exchange between these women and the people, dead or alive, for  whom they suffered.




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