Just a few weeks after he was elected Pope, our Holy Father Francis canonized his first saints, among them Saint Guadalupe García Zavala. To hear her story, you would have thought she was a Dame of Malta! Her whole life was devoted to caring for those who were sick.
The Holy Father recalled how “Mother Lupita would kneel on the hospital floor, before the sick, before the abandoned, in order to serve them with tenderness and compassion. And this is called touching the flesh of Christ. The poor, the abandoned, the sick and the marginalized are the flesh of Christ. And Mother Lupita touched the flesh of Christ...”
Some of you to whom I am speaking know sickness. Christ holds you close to his cross to share in his suffering. But whether you are caring for the sick or you yourselves are cared for in this time of weakness and suffering, I’d like to reflect for a moment on six simple teachings which come to us from the Lord and form the foundation of the Church’s theology of what it means to be sick.
1. Everyone suffers, but not like Christians do...
Suffering and illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit. Christians feel and experience pain as do all other people; yet their faith helps them to grasp more deeply the mystery of suffering and bear their pain with greater courage. From Christ’s words they know that sickness has meaning and value for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world. They also know that Christ, who during his life often visited and healed the sick, loves them in their illness. Joined with Christ and his suffering upon the cross, the sick person is never really alone.
2. Sickness is not usually a punishment for sin
Now there are exceptions to this principle: if I smoke too much and get lung cancer, I shouldn’t be too surprised. You can think of other examples, as well. But although it is loosely linked with the human condition, sickness cannot as a general rule be regarded as punishment inflicted on each individual for personal sins (see John 9:3).
We only have to recall the story of the man born blind in John’s Gospel. You may remember hearing that Gospel from this past lent. By whose sin was he born blind, Jesus is asked? Is he blind because of the sin of his parents? Or because of his own sin?
You remember Jesus’ response: His being born blind was no one’s sin. But today, his sickness will be used to glorify God. And then Jesus healed him.
As Knights and Dames of Malta you struggle with the pharisee in people every day. Why would God make me suffer like this? If I only went to Church more, or said that Novena, or knew the right words to say, I wouldn’t be sick. What did I do (or not do) to deserve this? The Church replies, like Jesus: It is not what you have done or not done (for the most part). Sickness and death are a part of life, a part of the mystery of the love of God. And as in the case of the man born blind, all we can do is that God will bring good even out of this moment of sickness and pain.
3. The sick person should fight illness
“Part of the plan laid out by God’s providence is that we should fight strenuously against all sickness and carefully seek the blessings of good health, so that we may fulfill our role in human society and in the Church.” (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying) In other words, while sickness can have meaning, God does not expect us to just roll over and die.
Sickness keeps me from going to Church, from feeding the poor, from preaching the Gospel, and from visiting the others who are sick! Sickness is not something to be enjoyed, but to struggle against. Like the prisoner locked in a dungeon, the sick person seeks to break the chains of the illness that confines him and keeps him from getting on with life.
4. The whole Church should fight illness
Which leads us to the next point: the sick person is not alone in this struggle.
“Doctors and all who are devoted in any way to caring for the sick should consider it their duty to use all the means which in their judgment may help the sick, both physically and spiritually. In so doing, they are fulfilling the command of Christ to visit the sick, for Christ implied that those who visit the sick should be concerned for the whole person and offer both physical relief and spiritual comfort.” (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying)
The fight against illness is a holy struggle, which sanctifies those who undertake this noble work in extraordinary and unexpected ways. You’ve seen that, time and time again. Luke was not the last health care worker to become a saint.
5. Sickness is sharing in the Passion of Christ
Sometimes, however, indeed for each one of us the struggle against sickness is in vain. Sometimes the cancer will not remit, the heart will not get stronger, the disease cannot be cured. On one day, each one of us (even Knights and Dames of Malta!) will find that we are sicker and sicker and that soon we will die.
So what do we say on that day “that we’ve lost the battle"? Far from it! For, as the preface for martyrs tells us, God chooses the weak and makes them strong in Christ. As Saint Francis reminds us, it is in our weakness that we are strong, in our littleness that we are great, in our powerlessness that we know true power.
“Christ himself, who is without sin, in fulfilling the words of Isaiah took on all the wounds of his passion and shared in all human pain (see Isaiah 53: 4-5). Christ is still pained and tormented in his members, made like him. We should always be prepared to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the salvation of the world...” (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying)
6. We need the sick
Which is precisely why the sick have such an indispensable role in the Church. The sick woman reminds me what is truly important and truly lasting. Faith, hope, and love are the only things that last! That’s hard to convince me of when I’m lecturing (I’m in control), or when I’m ministering the sick (I’m in control), or when I’m going to the bank (I’m in control).
But this voice you have been listening to will grow weak in not so many years and this mind will grow dim. These hands will begin to shake and sometime this heart will cease to beat. In the end, this body will stop working entirely. And I, who spend most of my waking moments in denial, need to be with sick people who remind me “of the essential or higher things. By their witness the sick show that our mortal life must be redeemed through the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.” (Pastoral Care of the Sick and Dying)
Faith, Hope, and Love. It’s all that really matters. It’s all that really lasts. There’s not a single member of the Church who does not have a role to play in this great drama. Not just as a support to family and friends, but (like Jesus) as a friend of the sick. As one who seeks them out in hospitals and nursing homes. As one who does not flee from his own fear and doubts, but through the smells, the sights and the fears goes to the sick man and makes him strong, knowing that Christ will judge him on the last day.
I was sick and you did not visit me. Be consigned to the everlasting fire. Rather strong words. And a rather clear teaching about our responsibility to fight at the side of the sick man in his mortal struggle.
7. The role of the sick in the Church
The Fathers of the second Vatican Council were clear about the foundational concern of the liturgical reform: the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful in the Sacred Liturgy. We must find ways to help every Christian to fully, consciously and actively participate in prayer with the sick. It is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.
But we must also help everyone (starting with ourselves) to appreciate the role which God has given the sick play in our world. Remember Pope John Paul II. Stooped and broken, his hands shaking with sometimes slurred words, the Holy Father is giving me the greatest gift I could imagine.
He was teaching me how to join my sufferings to the cross of Christ.
He was teaching me what it is like to stand at the foot of the cross, like the great Mother of God.
He was teaching me that sickness, a natural part of human life, is just around the corner.
And it’s my job, right now, to get ready.
That’s what the Church teaches about sickness and the human person.
God bless you and thank you for your attention.