Friday 11 February is World Day of the Sick and was instituted by Pope John Paul II in 1993 to be celebrated annually on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. People around the world are asked to take time on this day to pray for the sick and for those who work very hard to alleviate their sufferings.
From the earliest days of his priestly ministry, the sick and suffering had a special place in the heart of Pope Saint John Paul. He would frequently visit nursing homes and hospitals. After an assassination attempt on his life in 1981 he suffered a deterioration in his own health which eventually led to a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease.
All of us at some point in our lives, and almost certainly when we have been children have suffered with sickness of some kind or another. It is an unavoidable aspect of living and has merited a place as one of the marriage vows where husband and wife agree to take one another “in sickness and in health”.
It is something every one of us has been acutely aware of over the past two years when Covid 19 has transformed everything we used to take for granted, forcing us to look at the world in very different ways. Nurses and doctors were increasingly praised and valued as frontline workers and arguably appreciated in a way they had never been before. We may have walked past hospitals without a second thought or glance but suddenly they were at the forefront of the news and the focus of daily statistical attention.
Jesus the Sick and the Church
One of the most important commissions that the Lord gave to his disciples and to the Church was to minister to the sick. Indeed, in Matthew’s gospel we are reminded that Christ’s love for the sick is such that he makes himself one with them, so that to minister to the sick is to minister to Christ. “I was sick, and you visited me.” “When did we do this?” “… in so far as you did this to the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.”
Jesus’ ministry to the sick, that we are invited to make our own, was a ministry that included a care for physical healing but went deeper still. There was a concern for the healing of the breach between the person and their society. Then as now the sick were often pushed to the fringes of society.
The isolation within society cruelly mirrors the isolation that the sick sometimes feel from the Lord. In truth he is close, at one with us in our suffering, but in our sickness, we can feel abandoned even punished by God. The ministry of Jesus, the ministry that the Church is asked to make its own, seeks to show that this is not true. We are neither alone nor punished. Jesus with the full authority of God made one of us, spoke of the eternal love and healing that is God for us. The Church is asked to do the same.
Of course, the principal challenge of the Church is to show the love of God to the sick in the ordinary business of life. The care shown by a neighbour, by a visiting parish group, is an indispensable ministry that underpins and authenticates the ministry of word and sacrament. It shows there is more to the Church than just talk. It reminds us too that when we come to the celebration of the rites that the particular ministers have are a part of a team of ministers, and that that team is part of a parish that cares and in whose name they serve.
A Chance for Redemption
Pope John Paul II had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease as early as 1991, and it is significant that he decided to create the World Day of the Sick, only one year after his diagnosis. He had written a great deal on the topic of suffering and believed that it was very much a salvific and redeeming process through Christ.
The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes was chosen because many pilgrims and visitors, to the most frequented shrine to Our Lady in Europe, have claimed to have been cured and healed from sickness through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin.
In the light of Christ’s death and resurrection, illness no longer appears as an exclusively negative event, rather it is seen as a “visitation by God”, an opportunity “to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbour, in order to transform the whole of civilization into civilization of love.” (St Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter, Salvific Doloris, n 30)
Written by Marie – Therese Cryan