In a message ahead of the World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reminded Catholics that caring for the ill and infirm is not the calling of a few, but part of every Christian’s mission to show mercy.
“I would like to remind everyone that closeness to the sick and their pastoral care is not only the task of certain specifically designated ministers; visiting the sick is an invitation that Christ addresses to all his disciples,” the pope said.
“How many sick and elderly people are living at home and waiting for a visit,” he added. “The ministry of consolation is a task for every baptized person, mindful of the words of Jesus: ‘I was sick and you visited me.’”
The Catholic Church will mark the 30th annual World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in southwestern France is associated with the sick because of the presence of a miraculous spring from which many people have obtained physical healing.
Pope Francis said that his predecessor John Paul II instituted the World Day of the Sick in 1992 as a way “to encourage the people of God, Catholic health institutions, and civil society to be increasingly attentive to the sick and to those who care for them.”
In his message, Francis focused on mercy in light of this year’s theme: “‘Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful’ (Luke 6:36): Standing beside those who suffer on a path of charity.”
God’s mercy “combines strength and tenderness,” he said, and “the supreme witness of the Father’s merciful love for the sick is his only-begotten Son.”
Pope Francis, who spent 10 days in hospital last July after colon surgery, pointed out Jesus’ great concern for the sick and suffering during his earthly ministry. Jesus encountered many people suffering from disease and he performed miracles of healing.
It is a good idea for us to ask ourselves why Jesus showed such concern, the pope said, noting that one reason may be the loneliness that people can feel when they are sick or in pain.
Quoting the 20th-century French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, the pope said: “Pain isolates in an absolute way, and absolute isolation gives rise to the need to appeal to the other, to call out to the other.”
Jesus, Francis said, invites everyone — from physicians and nurses to laboratory technicians, support staff, and other caretakers — to show mercy toward those who are unwell.
While we thank God for the wonderful advances in medical science and technology, we must never forget “the uniqueness of each patient, his or her dignity and frailties,” he urged.
“Patients are always more important than their diseases, and for this reason, no therapeutic approach can prescind from listening to the patient, his or her history, anxieties and fears,” he wrote.
The pope also emphasized the importance of protecting and preserving Catholic healthcare institutions.
“Their presence has distinguished the history of the Church, showing her closeness to the sick and the poor, and to situations overlooked by others,” he wrote.
Pope Francis created a foundation in October offering financial support to Catholic hospitals in difficulty. The foundation, known in Italian as the Fondazione per la Sanità Cattolica, was established in response to requests for “direct intervention” by the Vatican to help Catholic institutions.
On Dec. 24, it was announced that the new Vatican foundation had joined together with the Leonardo Del Vecchio Foundation to save and relaunch Rome’s historic Fatebenefratelli Hospital, which has been in dire financial straits since 2013.
The nearly bankrupt Catholic hospital on Rome’s Tiber Island is run by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God.
Catholic healthcare is important both in poor countries, where people lack access to adequate care, and in the most developed countries, Pope Francis said, where, “in addition to caring for the body with all necessary expertise, they can always offer the gift of charity, which focuses on the sick themselves and their families.”
“At a time in which the culture of waste is widespread and life is not always acknowledged as worthy of being welcomed and lived, these structures, like ‘houses of mercy,’ can be exemplary in protecting and caring for all life, even the most fragile, from its beginning until its natural end,” he said.
Francis closed his message by entrusting all of the sick and their families to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, under the title Health of the Infirm.
“United with Christ, who bears the pain of the world, may they find meaning, consolation, and trust. I pray for healthcare workers everywhere, that, rich in mercy, they may offer patients, together with suitable care, their fraternal closeness,” he said.