It is hard to believe, but on February 8 I observed my six-month anniversary as Bishop of Syracuse. I don’t know where time has gone since August 8 and it certainly has been a time of adjustment with plenty to do. One thing I keep reminding myself is that I can’t do everything in a day, but with God’s help I strive to do the best each day. At night, I do sleep leaving everything in God’s hands, but not before asking his pardon for things I have done and left undone and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the new day.
This being said, one thing I have encountered within the last month is at least three family members and friends who were present that day in August and now are facing life-threatening illnesses. I don’t know about you, but I feel a bit of helplessness even though I have faith. In the face of stage four cancer and coronary artery disease what is one to do? What does one ask God for these individuals… healing or a happy death? Or is it for the trust and abandonment that God does love and care for you and me, like Jesus’ own prayer to the Father on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mt 27:46b) and handing everything over to the Father (see Jn 19:30).
The wrestling above is what Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest and betrayal. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). This scene of intense prayer gives us the background to an annual February event: the World Day of the Sick. On February 11 — the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes — the Catholic Church observes a special day of solidarity and prayer for the sick and their caregivers. This day of prayer was introduced by St. John Paul II in 1992. The theme for 2020 is “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).
In his message for this day, Pope Francis has written:
“On this XXVIII World Day of the Sick, Jesus repeats these words to the sick, the oppressed, and the poor. For they realize that they depend entirely on God and, beneath the burden of their trials, stand in need of his healing. Jesus does not make demands of those who endure situations of frailty, suffering and weakness, but offers his mercy and his comforting presence. He looks upon a wounded humanity with eyes that gaze into the heart of each person. That gaze is not one of indifference; rather, it embraces people in their entirety, each person in his or her health condition, discarding no one, but rather inviting everyone to share in his life and to experience his tender love.”
The Holy Father writes also:
“In him, you will find strength to face all the worries and questions that assail you during this ‘dark night’ of body and soul. Christ did not give us prescriptions, but through his passion, death and resurrection he frees us from the grip of evil.”
“In your experience of illness, you certainly need a place to find rest. The Church desires to become more and more the ‘inn’ of the Good Samaritan who is Christ (cf. Lk 10:34), that is, a home where you can encounter his grace, which finds expression in closeness, acceptance and relief. In this home, you can meet people who, healed in their frailty by God’s mercy, will help you bear your cross and enable your suffering to give you a new perspective. You will be able to look beyond your illness to a greater horizon of new light and fresh strength for your lives.”
The idea of the Church as an “inn of respite” is one that Pope Francis invites us to take seriously. Recently he converted an old Vatican “palace” into a dwelling for the indigent who lived on Rome’s streets and under its bridge. I know it gives me pause to look at our diocesan properties to see if we are using them for their full potential to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
And yet, our sacred spaces are more than utilitarian. That is why a grotto in Lourdes, France, has such great meaning. In this natural cavern, the healing presence of our God was and is made known once again through the gentle presence of our mother, Mary. It is a place of encounter with God’s Divine Providence for all of us… that all be saved!
That is why pilgrims from our diocese and from all over the world desire to visit this particular place. It reminds them of the nearness of our God and His holy mother no matter what! It is also my deepest prayer that all our houses of worship will be such places as well. A key component of the pilgrimage to Lourdes is hospitality! Is it a key component in our diocese and in our parishes? How do people find God in a building called “church,” especially if the “church” is the “People of God?”
In The Word Among Us, I read a beautiful story of a woman who noticed another churchgoer in her pew after Sunday Mass who looked a bit distraught. The woman’s initial intention was to walk on by, but something kept telling her she needed to reach out. When she did, the other person warmly greeted her and was then able to share her desperation at that moment. What followed was a moment of compassion and prayer. In the presence of Jesus present in the tabernacle, that woman became for that churchgoer the living and loving presence of Christ. Wow! Isn’t that what those buildings we call “church” are all about? And yet, a church isn’t a church without you and me!
Let me close with this year’s prayer for the Day of the Sick:
Tender and merciful God, you watch over your creatures with unfailing care, keep us in the safe embrace of your love. With your strong right hand, make whole all who are suffering. Give them the strength of your power and the stillness of your peace. Minister to them through the compassionate service of others and heal their every affliction. Fill those who serve the sick with new hope and joy for the good they do in your name. Amen.