On Tuesday, the feast of St. Elizabeth Seton (who cared for the sick herself), Pope Francis released his message for the 30th World Day of the Sick, which is observed on February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. The Holy Father noted that his predecessor, St. John Paul II began this observance so as “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.” Given the pandemic we are living through right now, this seems more timely than ever.

Pope Francis thanked God for progress made in caring for the ill, “yet there is still a long way to go in ensuring that all the sick, also those living in places and situations of great poverty and marginalization, receive the health care they need, as well as the pastoral care that can help them experience their sickness in union with the crucified and Risen Christ. May the Thirtieth World Day of the Sick — whose closing celebration, due to the pandemic, will not take place as planned in Arequipa, Peru, but in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican — help us grow in closeness and service to the sick and to their families.”

The theme for this year’s observance is “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). The pope said that this “makes us first turn our gaze towards God, Who is ‘rich in mercy’ (Eph 2:4); He always watches over His children with a father’s love, even when they turn away from Him. Mercy is God’s name par excellence; mercy, understood not as an occasional sentimental feeling but as an ever-present and active force, expresses God’s very nature.  It combines strength and tenderness. For this reason, we can say with wonder and gratitude that God’s mercy embraces both fatherhood and motherhood (cf. Is 49:15). God cares for us with the strength of a father and the tenderness of a mother; He unceasingly desires to give us new life in the Holy Spirit.”

One might wonder: what does this have to do with being ill? Pope Francis explained, “The supreme witness of the Father’s merciful love for the sick is His only-begotten Son. How often do the Gospels relate Jesus’ encounters with people suffering from various diseases! He ‘went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people’ (Mt 4:23). We do well to ask ourselves why Jesus showed such great concern for the sick, so much so that he made it paramount in the mission of the Apostles, who were sent by the Master to proclaim the Gospel and to heal the sick” (cf. Lk 9:2).

Pope Francis then quoted Emmanuel Lévinas, a French Lithuanian Jewish philosopher, who wrote, “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”. The pope applied Lévinas’ observation to the present: “When individuals experience frailty and suffering in their own flesh as a result of illness, their hearts become heavy, fear spreads, uncertainties multiply, and questions about the meaning of what is happening in their lives become all the more urgent. How can we forget, in this regard, all those patients who, during this time of pandemic spent the last part of their earthly life in solitude, in an intensive care unit, assisted by generous healthcare workers, yet far from their loved ones and the most important people in their lives? This helps us to see how important is the presence at our side of witnesses to God’s charity, who, following the example of Jesus, the very mercy of the Father, pour the balm of consolation and the wine of hope on the wounds of the sick.” This is a reference to the loving actions of the Good Samaritan. 

“Jesus’ invitation to be merciful like the Father has particular significance for healthcare workers. I think of all those physicians, nurses, laboratory technicians, the support staff and the caretakers of the sick, as well as the numerous volunteers who donate their precious time to assist those who suffer. Dear healthcare workers, your service alongside the sick, carried out with love and competence, transcends the bounds of your profession and becomes a mission. Your hands, which touch the suffering flesh of Christ, can be a sign of the merciful hands of the Father.” In other words, it is Christ ministering to Christ in these hospitals and other health facilities. 

The pope again thanked “the Lord for the progress that medical science has made,” in technology, in the elimination of some illnesses, and in progress in rehabilitation methods. “None of this, however, must make us forget the uniqueness of each patient, his or her dignity and frailties. 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. It is always possible to console, it is always possible to make people sense a closeness that is more interested in the person than in his or her pathology.”

Care of the sick takes place in specific places and the pope discussed them in his message. “Down the centuries, showing mercy to the sick led the Christian community to open innumerable ‘inns of the good Samaritan.’ Merciful like the Father, countless missionaries have combined the preaching of the Gospel with the construction of hospitals, dispensaries and care homes.”

The Holy Father also expressed his “wish to reaffirm the importance of Catholic healthcare institutions: they are a precious treasure to be protected and preserved; their presence has distinguished the history of the Church, showing her closeness to the sick and the poor, and to situations overlooked by others. How many founders of religious families have listened to the cry of their brothers and sisters who lack access to care or are poorly cared for, and have given their utmost in their service! 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.”

The Holy Father next discussed the attention given to the Spiritual needs of patients. “If the worst discrimination suffered by the poor — including the sick, who are poor in health — is the lack of Spiritual attention, we cannot fail to offer them God’s closeness, His blessing and His word, as well as the celebration of the Sacraments and the opportunity for a journey of growth and maturation in faith. In this regard, 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. How many sick and elderly people are living at home and waiting for a visit! The ministry of consolation is a task for every baptized person, mindful of the word of Jesus: ‘I was sick and you visited Me’ (Mt 25:36).” Something for all of us to consider!

The pope closed by invoking Mary’s intercession and praying for the sick, that “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.”