Nearness, Charity for Those Who Suffer
by Pope Francis
“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36).
Standing beside those who suffer on a path of charity
Dear brothers and sisters,
Thirty years ago, Saint John Paul II instituted the World Day of the Sick 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.
We are grateful to the Lord for the progress made over the years in the particular Churches worldwide. Many advances have been made, 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 Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican – help us grow in closeness and service to the sick and to their families.
1.Merciful like the Father
The theme chosen for this Thirtieth World Day of the Sick, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Lk6:36), makes us first turn our gaze towards God, who is “rich in mercy” (Eph2:4); 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.Is49:15). 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.
2.Jesus, the mercy of the Father
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” (Mt4:23). 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.Lk9:2).
One twentieth-century philosopher suggests a reason for this: “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”. 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.
3.To touch the suffering flesh of Christ
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.Be mindful of the great dignity of your profession, as well as the responsibility that it entails.
Let us thank the Lord for the progress that medical science has made, especially in recent times; new technologies have made it possible to prepare therapies that are of great benefit to the sick; research continues to make a valuable contribution to eliminating old and new pathologies; rehabilitation medicine has greatly expanded its expertise and skills. 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.Even when healing is not possible, care can always be given. 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. For this reason, I would hope that the training provided to health workers might enable them to develop a capacity for listening and relating to others.
4.Centres of care as “houses of mercy”
The World Day of the Sick is also a good occasion to focus our attention on centres of care. Down the centuries, showing mercy to the sick led the Christian community to open innumerable “inns of the good Samaritan”, where love and care can be given to people with various kinds of sickness, especially those whose health needs are not being met due to poverty or social exclusion or to the difficulties associated with treating certain pathologies. In these situations, it is children, the elderly and those who are most frail who most often pay the price. Merciful like the Father, countless missionaries have combined the preaching of the Gospel with the construction of hospitals, dispensaries and care homes. These are precious means whereby Christian charity has taken visible shape and the love of Christ, witnessed by that of his disciples, has become more credible.I think especially of people in the poorest areas of our planet, where it is sometimes necessary to travel long distances to find treatment centres that, albeit with limited resources, offer what is available. We still have a long way to go; in some countries, access to adequate care remains a luxury. We see this, for example, in the scarcity of available vaccines against Covid-19 in poor countries; but even more in the lack of treatment for illnesses that require much simpler medicines.
In this context, I 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!Today too, even in the most developed countries, their presence is a blessing, since 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.
5.Pastoral mercy: presence and proximity
In the past thirty years, pastoral health care has also seen its indispensable service increasingly recognized. 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” (Mt25:36).
Dear brothers and sisters, to the intercession of Mary, Health of the Infirm, I entrust all the sick and their families.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.
To all I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing.
Rome, Saint John Lateran, 10 December 2021, Memorial of Our Lady of Loreto.
Cf. SAINT JOHN PAUL II, Letter to Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, President of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Healthcare Workers, for the Establishment of the World Day of the Sick (May 13, 1992).
E. Lévinas, «Une éthique de la souffrance», in Souffrances. Corps etâme, épreuves partagées, edited by J.-M. von Kaenel, Autrement, Paris 1994, pp. 133-135.
Cf. Roman Missal, Common Preface VIII, Jesus the Good Samaritan.
Cf. Address to the National Federation of the Orders of Physicians and Dental Surgeons, 20 September 2019.
Cf. Angelus from Gemelli Hospital, Rome, 11 July 2021.
Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24 November 2013), 200.
© Libreria Editrice Vaticana 2021
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