Although I maintain a rather intense schedule, it is no secret that I have confronted more than a few health issues since becoming Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton in 2010. In fact, as I visit various parishes or diocesan gatherings for one thing or another, people invariably ask me “how are you feeling?” or say “you are in my prayers.”
I appreciate their love and concern very much and can assure them that, despite the occasional flare-up of issues related to diabetes, their Shepherd feels good and full of energy, thank God. I know that the cast and brace that I have to wear from time to time is not convincing, but it doesn’t seem to keep me from travelling around the four counties of the diocese and being with our good people at significant moments in their lives. I consider myself a pretty lucky guy, especially when compared with many sick and suffering individuals I have the honor and privilege to visit here. Illness is simply a fact of life.
For the past 21 years, the Catholic Church has celebrated World Day of the Sick on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11. As we all know, Lourdes was the French site of 18 apparitions by the Blessed Mother to the 14-year old St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. Since that time, countless miraculous healings have been reported as over five million pilgrims visit there each year.
Last year, I had the joy of leading a diocesan pilgrimage to Lourdes. Our diocesan pilgrims were overwhelmed by what they witnessed during those days, especially the procession of the sick or maladies, as they are known. But, even if a physical healing does not occur, the faith of the sick and those who care for them is, in itself, miraculous, given the suffering they endure on a daily basis. And that faith is, for lack of a better term, “contagious” to those who visit Lourdes.
In his message for World Day of the Sick 2013, our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI addresses the sick and those who are “undergoing a time of trial due to illness and suffering,” quoting the Second Vatican Council in this Year of Faith:
You are not alone, separated, abandoned or useless. You have been called by Christ and are his living, transparent image (Vatican II, “Message to the Poor, the Sick and the Suffering”).
While offering to health care professionals and those entrusted with the care of the sick the Gospel image of the “Good Samaritan” as a model, Pope Benedict XVI urges them and all of us to see in the sick “the Holy Face of Christ, who by suffering, dying and rising has brought about the salvation of mankind (John Paul II, “Letter for World Day of the Sick 1992”).” Can you imagine the difference that would make if we could see in the face of the ill and suffering, the very countenance of Jesus himself? Thoughts of abandonment or euthanasia or anger or impatience or frustration would disappear.
I have an 86-year-old mother whose mind is ravaged by dementia and who is barely mobile. Most days, she is not quite sure who she is or what her surroundings are. Occasionally, after my visits, she will say to her nursemaid or my heroic brother who lives with and cares for her, “wasn’t it nice the priest came to see me.” And, yet, when I am able to bring her Holy Communion, she will bless herself, say a prayer, tear up and say to me, “I feel so much better.” Yes, Jesus is present there, the suffering Jesus, letting her know that she is not alone.
No one chooses illness or disability or suffering. They are unwelcome guests who, nevertheless, make their home within us all at some point in our lives. Sometimes, our only prayer can be one of acceptance, courage and fidelity --- the prayer of the sick and the prayer of those who love them. In those moments when I hold my mother’s crippled hand or rub her stooped back or comb her hair or bring her lunch that she doesn’t want to eat, I thank God for her and I ask Him to hold her close until the time comes for her to go to His side.
And when I visit the sick in hospitals and homes and look for the face of Christ, I also see her eyes and her fading smile and the memories of the life we shared. Christ gives me the grace and she gives me the strength to love those who suffer. What great gifts!
World Day of the Sick is a special day, a beautiful day for all of us to embrace the suffering Lord in the sick whom we encounter, wherever we may find them. Blessed Pope John Paul II, who courageously shared his aging and infirmity with the whole world, reminded us that “The Church today lives a fundamental aspect of her mission in lovingly and generously accepting every human being, especially those who are weak and sick (John Paul II, Christifideles Laici, 38).“ May that mission be our own and may Our Lady of Lourdes, so loving a Mother, lead us all in the suffering that we endure and in the suffering that we see, to the heart of her Son, Jesus Christ, who invites us all to join our suffering to His own. Amen.