By Devin Watkins
“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36): Standing beside those who suffer on a path of charity.”
Those words formed the theme of Pope Francis’ message for the World Day of the Sick—scheduled for 11 February—which was released on Tuesday.
The Pope noted that this year’s occurrence marks 30 years since Pope St. John Paul II instituted the World Day to encourage all members of the Church to “be increasingly attentive to the sick and to those who care for them.”
He also expressed his gratitude for the great advances in healthcare and pastoral care of the sick in the intervening three decades, while recalling that many people still live in areas that are poorly served by healthcare systems and pastoral outreach.
He noted that the annual celebration of the World Day of the Sick is taking place in St. Peter’s Basilica, rather than in Arequipa, Peru, as originally planned, due to the ongoing health crisis.
Pope Francis’ message comes a few short months after his own brief hospital stay at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital following a scheduled surgery on his colon.
‘Merciful like the Father’
In his message, Pope Francis reflected on various aspects of “mercy,” starting with the mercy of the Father.
He said God’s mercy is part of His very nature and combines “strength and tenderness.”
‘Jesus, the mercy of the Father’
The Pope said that Jesus offers the best witness to the Father’s merciful love for the sick.
In His earthly life, Jesus healed all manner of disease and illness, and made it an important part of His missionary mandate to the apostles, who were sent to “proclaim the Gospel and to heal the sick.”
Pope Francis drew on a consideration by French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to explore why ministering to the sick is such an important part of the Christian mission.
“Pain isolates in an absolute way,” said Mr. Levinas, “and absolute isolation gives rise to the need to appeal to the other, to call out to the other.”
The Pope said acute experiences of our human frailty urge us to seek out those near to us, and it is the Church’s job to respond with concrete signs of God’s charity.
‘To touch the suffering flesh of Christ’
Pope Francis went on to consider the many healthcare workers who daily minister to “the suffering flesh of Christ.”
He thanked all healthcare professionals and volunteers for dedicating their lives to helping those who suffer.
At the same time, the Pope praised the technological and therapeutic advances made in the field of medicine.
Yet no advancement, he added, can allow us to “forget the uniqueness of each patient, his or her dignity and frailties.” Patients, he said, “are always more important than their diseases.”
‘Centres of care as “houses of mercy”’
The Pope said the World Day of the Sick allows the Church to take stock of her long-running dedication to providing healthcare to the poor and marginalized by opening hospitals and clinics in poverty-stricken areas.
He reaffirmed the work of Catholic healthcare institutions, calling them “a precious treasure to be protected and preserved” since they offer “the gift of charity”.
‘Pastoral mercy: presence and proximity’
Pope Francis then expressed his appreciation for those who carry out pastoral care among the sick.
Those who act on Christ’s invitation include professionals like hospital chaplains, as well as ordinary Catholics who take the time to visit their ailing neighbors.
United to Christ in our suffering
The Pope wrapped up his message for the 30th World Day of the Sick by entrusting all the sick and their families to the intercession of Mary, Health of the infirm.
“United with Christ, who bears the pain of the world, may they find meaning, consolation and trust,” he concluded. “I pray for healthcare workers everywhere, that, rich in mercy, they may offer patients, together with suitable care, their fraternal closeness.”