The Ministry of the Sick to the Christian Community
Homily for the World Day of the Sick
By Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone
Archbishop of San Francisco
February 7, 2015; St. Mary’s Cathedral
It would be difficult to come up with a greater contrast than that presented by the two readings we have just heard. The Gospel relates the second joyful mystery of the Rosary, the Visitation, while the first is a selection from one of the “Suffering Servant songs” of Isaiah. Providentially, these two lessons act as a hinge connecting the joy of the Christmas season just past and the penitential season of Lent which begins in just over a week. The paradoxical relationship between sorrow and joy in the Christian life is intensified as we celebrate the Eucharist on this “World Day of the Sick”.
The Mystery of Illness
As I begin these reflections I invite you to look at the beautiful sculpture of the Visitation on the west side of the cathedral. It is customary in religious art to portray the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, but here the artist was inspired to depict the three months that Mary spent caring for her elderly relative as she awaited the birth of her child. It is a simple domestic scene, and there is nothing to suggest overtly that this is a religious event at all – no rays of light, no halos. The mystery of God’s presence and purpose is hidden in the wombs of Mary and Elizabeth. This in itself is a great consolation as we confront the reality of illness. For most of us through most of our lives, being sick is something we experience for a few days or weeks; but there comes a time when illness becomes chronic. We, or someone we love, are afflicted with a serious illness that now shapes our daily life in a permanent way. It is at times like this that we need the eyes of faith to perceive God’s hidden presence and purpose.
During Mary’s sojourn with her cousin, suffering was present yet temporary. Zechariah had lost the power of speech, but this would be restored; Elizabeth’s discomfort would end with the birth of her son. And yet we, who know the whole story, realize that the lives of the two unborn children will be marked by intense suffering. How did they confront this? And how should we?
When John the Baptist was languishing in prison, he sent disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you he who is to come, or should we wait for another?” In response, Our Lord pointed to his miracles of healing to demonstrate that he was indeed the longed-for Savior. The blind have their sight restored, the lame walk, the dead are raised – these were signs of God’s love at work. What Jesus did two thousand years ago he does today: people still experience wondrous healings, and some of them are truly miraculous. Christ is our Savior, and he can save us from the ravages of illness.
Making Sense of It All
But what of those who are not cured? Could it be that they are deficient in faith, or worse still, not loved by God? To answer that question, it would be helpful to recall the life of St. Bernadette, who was privileged to see Our Lady at the grotto of Massabielle. Although many people have experienced healing at Lourdes, Bernadette herself did not. Her life was short, and marked with much suffering, both physical and emotional. The Blessed Mother had told her: “The spring is not for you.”
Confronted with the reality of her own illness, Bernadette came to understand that, while those who receive physical healing testify to the power of Christ’s victory of sickness and death, the sick can share in the very work of redemption itself. Jesus did not save the world through his miracles, his preaching or his cures, but through the folly and weakness of the cross. It was when those hands were nailed to the wood and he could no longer heal the lame, when those feet which had carried him from village to village were no longer able to move, when he could barely speak because of his thirst, that Christ in fact saved us.
You who endure the discomfort, the immobility and the pain of illness, your own or that of someone you love, can come to see with Bernadette that in Christ your suffering is not meaningless, but is in fact part of the mystery of the cross which transforms suffering – so terrible in itself – into an act of love. Of course we shrink from pain; we would not be human if we did not. The Son of God himself experienced agony in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before Passion, and begged the Father to take the chalice from him if possible. But when it became clear to him that it was the Father’s will that he drink that cup to the dregs, he went out to meet suffering with a serene heart. His death would be the great sign of his love for his Father and for us.
St. Augustine wrote that God had one Son without sin, but none without suffering. Christ does not shield us from suffering – he leads us through it. The joyful mysteries of life, ours as well as his, must give way to the sorrowful mysteries. But these in turn lead to the glorious mysteries of eternal life. We rejoice when someone is healed, for this is a preview of the Kingdom. But it is a preview of a Kingdom not of this world, and the only road there is the royal road of the cross. With earthly eyes, we see the healthy tending to sick and carrying them on that road; when we look with the eyes of faith, we realize that the sick are carrying the rest of us.