By Sister Lois Anne Palkert, OSF
One year after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Pope John Paul II decided to create a World Day of the Sick to be celebrated on February 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Pope had written a great deal on the topic of suffering and believed that it was very much a redeeming process through Christ, as he indicated in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris.
The feast of Our Lady of Lourdes was chosen because many pilgrims and visitors to Lourdes, France have reportedly been healed through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Fittingly, this is also our community feast, because we are known as the Sisters of St. Francis, Congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes, and a feast significant for Catholic Health Initiatives, the sponsor of St. Joseph Health System, where I minister in Texas.
The theme Pope Francis selected for this year’s World Day of the Sick is “Entrusting oneself to the merciful Jesus like Mary: ‘Do whatever he tells you”. The Pope uses the Gospel account of the wedding feast of Cana to provide a reflection for the celebration. He sees the 24th World Day of the Sick as an opportunity for him to draw closer, to those who you are ill, and to those who care for them.
According to Pope Francis, illness, particularly grave illness, always places us as human beings in crises and brings with it questions that “dig deep.” Our first response may at times be one of rebellion: “why has this happened to me?” We can feel desperate; thinking that all is lost that things no longer have meaning.
In these situations, the Pope acknowledges “faith in God is on the one hand tested, yet at the same time can reveal all of its positive resources. Faith offers a key by which we can discover the deepest meaning of what we are experiencing, a key that can help us to see how illness can be the way to draw nearer to Jesus, who walks at our side, a key given to us by Mary, our Mother, who has known this way at first hand.”
Each time I visit patients in our rural hospitals in Texas I see and hear these words of Pope Francis reflected in the lives of the sick. I will often hear a patient say “There are times when I feel sorry for myself and ask ‘Why me’ then I look around and see that there are others who are suffering so much more than I am. I know that God is with me and will see me through this. “The lived faith of those who are ill is always a source of inspiration and edification to me.
Reflecting on his recent diagnosis and surgery for prostate cancer, Richard Rohr acknowledges that “I realized that in the moments of diagnosis, doctor’s warnings, waiting, delays, and the surgery itself, I was fragile, scared, and insecure as anybody would be, but if I could stay with the full narrative all the way through, it was afterward that I could invariably see, trust and enjoy the wonderful works of God…After the fact, it is then much easier to know-really know – the patterns of divine love and faithfulness.”
“This experienced faithfulness can only morph into love for all those who might be elderly, infirm, suffering chronic pain, powerless, or even dying at this very moment. The circle widens to all who care for them-for me-along with friends, nurses, doctors, family. Right now my empathy for all human suffering has increased tenfold. I know how much it hurts to hurt, how sad it is to be sad. When I wanted to feel sorry for myself the image of Syrian refugees flooded into my mind and heart. My tiny bit of discomfort became a huge gift and opportunity, because it offered me a way to experience and to love communion with the fate and the state of all humanity. I wonder if there is any other way to learn such things.”
Like Richard Rohr, for me, it is in the experiences of vulnerability, especially during an illness, that I learned and continue to learn the meaning of empathy and compassionate caring.
The Pope reminds us that even though the experience of suffering will always remain a mystery, “Jesus helps us to reveal its meaning. If we can learn to obey the words of Mary, who says “Do whatever he tells you”, Jesus will always change the water of our lives into precious wine.”
The Pope notes that at Cana the distinctive features of Jesus and his mission are clearly seen: he comes to the help of those in difficulty and need. In the course of his ministry, Jesus would heal many people of illnesses, infirmities and evil spirts, give sight to the blind, make the lame walk, restore health and dignity to lepers, raise the dead, and proclaim the good news to the poor—a mission and ministry that we all share.
The Pope goes on to point out that in the scene at Cana, Jesus relies on the cooperation of the servants. Being a servant to others is “wonderful and pleasing to God.” He asks that we have that same readiness to serve others, especially those in need. His hope is that every hospital and nursing home be a place of peace where those who are suffering experience the tenderness of God from those who care for them,
On World Day of the Sick 2016 as we celebrate our Feast day in our centennial year, rejoicing in 100 years of Franciscan presence and our response to serve in the ministry of healthcare, may we remember with gratitude each life we have touched with the tenderness of God’s mercy, healing and love.