The editorial of the month
by Rev. Peter John Cameron, O.P
In the days before my mother died, I would wake early and tiptoe into the room to pray the divine office in silence by her bedside. It wasn’t sentimental. That sickroom was like a tabernacle. As Pope Francis said, addressing the ill, “The Church recognizes in you, the sick, a special presence of the suffering Christ.” What a privilege and grace to have the sick in our midst.
This year we commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the World Day of the Sick. The annual occasion is to be, as Pope Saint John Paul II stated in his 1992 letter instituting the day, “a special time 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.”
Seeing beyond sickness
This calls us to regard the sick in a rectified way.
Servant of God Mother Mary Alphonsa († 1926), the daughter of the author Nathaniel Hawthorne and the foundress of the Dominican Sisters for the Care of Incurable Cancer, posed this question:
Let us imagine, side by side, a man covered with an affliction of the flesh; poor, friendless, abandoned; his relatives no longer willing to harbor him; all institutions pretending to decent care evicting him; paid attendants and lodging-houses turning him to the open world. Then imagine a businessman of great influence, in health that beams roseately.
Which man would Christ have chosen for most effective attention? We know: the leper. To Christ, the sores are not the man. The abased, humiliated sphere, the infirm consciousness, the blinded sight or half-silenced speech, cover to him the soul for whom he would have suffered death.
The mystical sick
In addition to the pain and anguish of infirmity, being ill is traumatic for another reason, which Pope Benedict XVI explained: “Sickness inevitably brings with it a moment of crisis and sober confrontation with one’s own personal situation.”
The Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle helps us understand this:
Suffering cuts through all the appearances behind which we hide, until it reaches the depths where the living self dwells. It is suffering which gives the sufferer the most intimate communication with the world, and with himself. Suffering acquires meaning only when it nourishes the flame of our spiritual life. Suffering becomes a sort of cauterization, which burns up the individual part of my nature, and forces me to consent to its annihilation.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once remarked: “One of the things I find most moving is the way people with infirmities manage to embrace life. They can, if their souls’ strings are finely tuned, arrive with much less effort at the feeling of eternity; for everything we do, they may dream. And precisely where our deeds end, theirs begin to bear fruit.”
Pope John Paul II reminded us that “Christ did not come to remove our afflictions, but to share in them and, in taking them on, to confer on them a salvific value.”
One of the world’s most eloquent testifiers to this was Mother Marie des Douleurs († 1983), the foundress of the Congregation of Benedictines of Jesus Crucified—a religious community established for women deemed unfit for monastic life on account of their physical infirmities:
The sick person wakes people up. By choosing not to be asphyxiated by suffering, the sick person draws people’s attention to the One who, at the height of moral and physical suffering, was able to say to the Father: Into your hands, Lord, I commend my spirit. The sick one gives witness that no misery or distress is so deep that it cannot be redeemed, that no sincere desire for life remains unheard—for death has been swallowed up by Life.
Such conviction moved Blessed Paul VI, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, to make this appeal:
All of you who feel heavily the weight of the cross, take courage. You are the preferred children of the Kingdom of God, the kingdom of hope, happiness, and life. You are the brothers and sisters of the suffering Christ, and with him, if you wish, you are saving the world.
Redemptive care for the sick
Pope Francis encourages us that “time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son.” To quote Saint John Paul II: “It is in care for the sick more than in any other way that love is made concrete and a witness of hope in the Resurrection is offered.”