This Friday, 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 annual liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, a holy day that is “a symbol of hope and grace in the sign of acceptance and offering of salvific suffering.”
The sick and the suffering always had a special place in the heart of St. John Paul II, as he frequently would visit nursing homes and hospitals early in his priestly ministry and beyond. The institution of the World Day of the Sick also was a way to emphasize the foundational place of outreach to the suffering in the earthly ministry of Jesus and, thus, the life of the Church. There is an abundance of Gospel passages relating the encounters of the Lord with people suffering from various diseases. He “went about all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and infirmity among the people.” (Matthew 4:23) Moreover, the great concern which Jesus showed to the sick was made paramount in the mission of the apostles, who were sent by the Master to proclaim the Gospel and to heal the sick. (Luke 9:2ff)
The primary intent of the World Day is to promote “a renewed spirit of service, with an attitude of listening, reflection and effective commitment in the face of the great mystery of pain and illness.” Significant, as well, is the desire to involve not just believers but all people of good will to address the questions posed by the reality of suffering and the appeal to bring both physical and spiritual relief to the sick. It is noted that the World Day has a “manifest purpose of sensitizing the People of God and, consequently, the many Catholic health institutions and civil society itself, to the need to ensure the best assistance to the sick.” It is important to keep in the forefront of our minds that there is still a very large number of people whose health needs are not being met due to poverty, social exclusion or difficulties associated with treating certain pathologies. Often, it is children, the elderly and those who are most frail who pay the price. There are many poor areas where people have to travel far too long a distance to find treatment centers, or the centers which are available have very limited resources.
Another important focus of the World Day of the Sick is to affirm the value and worth of health-care workers: the physicians, nurses, laboratory technicians, support staff and volunteers who attend to the needs of those who are ill. So many who serve the sick do so with a profound competence and love that even transcends their profession and becomes a sacred mission. It is hoped that this World Day offers stimulus and encouragement to continue to show such respect for human dignity and the protection of life, from its natural beginning to its natural close.
Yet another focus of the World Day of the Sick is to call forth anew and help empower chaplains, pastors, members of religious communities, lay ecclesial ministers and parishioners who engage in the pastoral care of the sick. How vital is their role in tending to the spiritual needs of the suffering, helping them to experience their illness in union with the crucified and risen Christ. Such prayerful pastoral care cherishes each patient in the uniqueness of his or her personhood and prevents the mistake of simply identifying him or her as a medical case with a disease. Comfort and consolation can convey the closeness of a personal relationship rather than just the treatment of a pathology.
In his Message for the 2022 celebration of the World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis acknowledges its 30th commemoration. He has selected the theme “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) He writes, “Mercy is God’s name par excellence; mercy, understood not as an occasional sentimental feeling but as an ever-present and active force.” The Holy Father also extends an invitation beyond professional health-care workers and formally Church-commissioned ministers to all lay disciples. He seeks to remind all the faithful that care for the sick is not solely the responsibility of specially designated people. The admonition of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (25:36), “I was sick and you visited me,” is meant for everyone. The World Day of the Sick can serve as a reminder to reach out to the many infirm, frail and elderly who are in anguish and pain, desperately longing for a visit from someone who cares.