This Sunday, Feb. 11, marks the celebration of the World Day of the Sick. This world day of prayer was instituted by St. John Paul II in 1993 to serve as a “special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding everyone to see in his sick brother or sister the face of Christ, who, by suffering, dying and rising, achieved the salvation of mankind.” The date was purposefully chosen to coincide with the memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, a holy day which is “a symbol of hope and grace in the sign of acceptance and offering of salvific suffering.”
Pope Francis has acknowledged this special day of prayer by issuing a commemorative message entitled, “It is not good that man should be alone: Healing the Sick by Healing Relationships.” The first line of the message comes from Genesis 2:18. The Holy Father points out that this verse from the story of Creation is a reminder that, “From the beginning, God, who is love, created us for communion and endowed us with an innate capacity to enter into relationship with others.” He then proceeds to acknowledge how the disruption of communion by sickness leads to great suffering, “Precisely because this project of communion is so deeply rooted in the human heart, we see the experience of abandonment and solitude as something frightening, painful and even inhuman. This is all the more the case at times of vulnerability, uncertainty and insecurity, caused often by the onset of a serious illness.” He further illustrates the traumatic nature of this ordeal by referencing the experience of the coronavirus, “I think of all those who found themselves terribly alone during the COVID-19 pandemic: the patients who could not receive visitors, but also the many nurses, physicians and support personal overwhelmed by work and enclosed in isolation wards.”
It is precisely because of the way in which sickness can isolate persons and thus rupture the intimate bonds with others that Pope Francis proposes a relational outreach to those who face the struggle of infirmity, “the first form of care needed in any illness is compassionate and loving closeness. To care for the sick thus means above all to care for their relationships, all of them: with God, with others — family members, friends, healthcare workers — with creation and with themselves.” In fact, the Holy Father even elevates the pastoral ministry of nurturing relational bonds to the highest level of priority in the care of patients. “Let us remember this central truth in life: we came into the world because someone welcomed us; we were made for love; and we are called to communion and fraternity. This aspect of our lives is what sustains us, above all, at times of illness and vulnerability. It is also the first therapy that we must all adopt in order to heal the diseases of the society in which we live.”
As I was reading and meditating upon the message of Pope Francis for the 32nd annual celebration of the World Day of the Sick, I was struck rather profoundly regarding how significantly his words about the relational component of illness resonated with my pastoral and even life experience. Sickness truly can have a way of removing us from the relational connections which bring us so much comfort, consolation and meaning. It can lift us out of the normal ebb and flow of our daily life, and even end up sequestering us in a place where we can end up feeling a heavy sense of aloneness. Even in my childhood, I recall my little sister Anne sensing the isolating element of illness and seeking a way to remedy it. There was many a time, whenever someone in the family became ill, she would take one of her favorite stuffed animals and bring it to the bedside, tuck it under the cover of the blankets and assure us that her cuddly plush friend would keep us company.
Moreover, in my many years of priestly life, I also often have been inspired by the efforts which the members of my parishes would engage in to reach out and restore connections with other members of the congregation who suffered a sense of “absence” inflicted by sickness.
One of my parishioners, who was blessed with a very sincere faith and a beautiful spirit of piety, was extremely generous in visiting the elderly who were residents in health care facilities or nursing homes. She truly loved the Church, and she felt great sadness that others were not always able to bask in its holy environment. So, she did her best — not only to visit the senior citizens — but to bring them things that would help them feel a sense of the faith community. She would bring them bottles of Holy Water, palms on Palm Sunday, devotional booklets for the seasons of Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter, pamphlets featuring the Stations of the Cross and pictures she took of the liturgical decorations of the church. In fact, she even would bring copies of the Order of Worship from Sunday and describe the unfolding of the celebration of the Mass.
Another parishioner, who was very much involved in the social elements of the life of the congregation, lived near someone who was homebound because of her illness. So, in order to make sure that this neighbor would not feel deprived of the spirit of the community, he regularly would visit with a copy of the bulletin in hand. And, because the neighbor was hampered by poor sight, he would read the bulletin to her and describe the ministries, meetings and events of the parish. In fact, he also would acquire a copy of the minutes of the parish pastoral council and offer an explanation of the mission it sought to embrace. This taste of parish life was enhanced by the fact that this parishioner would bring to his neighbor treats from such events as the youth group’s cinnamon roll sale, the Christian women’s bake sale and the pie social, which followed the Ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve prayer service.
Yet another parishioner, a trained member of the Pastoral Care Ministry, was a very faith-filled and caring member of the volunteers who distributed Holy Communion to patients in the local hospital. She would prepare before the assigned date of her visitation by searching for a special prayer, Bible passage or spiritual reflection to share with the patient, along with the Body of Christ. Plus, she would ask her children to design and decorate some home-made greeting cards and add a personal hand-written message to offer comfort and prayer intentions.
Pope Francis concludes his message with a compelling admonition, “The sick, the vulnerable and the poor are at the heart of the Church; they must also be at the heart of our human concern and pastoral attention. May we never forget this! And let us commend ourselves to Mary Most Holy, Health of the Sick, that she may intercede for us and help us to be artisans of closeness and fraternal relationships.”