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Bearing witness to the Gospel by being with the sick

· 25th anniversary of the Pontifical Council for Health-Care Workers ·

The Pastoral Care of Health represents the Church's own activity in the health-care sector. It is the specific expression of her mission and makes manifest God's tenderness towards suffering humanity.

After Jesus' call to “go and do likewise” (Lk 10:37), it is no longer acceptable to ascribe the alleviation of suffering to medicine alone. Rather, we must broaden the meaning of this human activity.

In his Message for the World Day of the Sick, the Pope recalls in this regard the work of the Pontifical Council for Health-Care Workers which this year is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and gives thanks for the progress made.

The action of the Pontifical Council, which has worldwide importance in addressing and issuing requests to Catholic institutions, is particularly timely today when medicine is focusing its attention on the biophysical reality of illness.

Indeed, it is necessary to rediscover the holistic attention to the human person that distinguished Jesus' thaumaturgical action, which was already present in the Old Testament. This means – as the Encyclical Salvifici Doloris reminds us – combining moral suffering with the pain of specific parts of the organism: the bones, kidneys, liver, bowels or heart.

Thus medicine needs pastoral care, not only in order to provide ethical and moral foundations but also to support the attitudes and practices of health-care workers for the adequate care, in time, of those who are suffering the pain of illness.

Indeed, it is not easy to have to interact with the sick, especially when we can do no more than be present. Pastoral care can teach us that the most important action is being present: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights”, and “no one spoke a word to him” (cf. Job 2:13).

Only in this way can the world of medicine be liberated from the hectic and desperate presumption of the technological control of human life. Believing that one's presence is what can and must be provided in the face of therapeutic powerlessness implies the faith of the workers in a presence both in this world and in the hereafter. Pastoral care would thus strive to proclaim the meaning of the relationship with God and with the community; to affirm the possibility of healing; to use the knowledge of the human sciences to help in suffering, to remember that human beings are mortal but are born for eternal life. It should also bear witness to the Gospel of life that is open to a wide variety of commitments in the defence of the value of the unborn baby and the abandoned child, of the elderly and of the sick person in the terminal stages of life.

In his Encyclical Spe Salvi, Benedict XVI had already warned that “the true measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer” (n. 38), thereby indicating at the same time a responsibility that is proper to the whole system of social assistance and health care, and that of the individual worker.

A complex health-care system exists, a network of financial and organizational assistance represented by many health-care structures in various forms. The Pope mentions those “directly managed by the dioceses and those born from the generosity of various religious Institutes” ( Message for the 18th World Day of the Sick, 11 February 2010).

However, the health-care worker always has a precise personal responsibility that cannot be shirked and is the result of a spiritual journey centred on Christ, present in the sick and served with humility and love.

The Pope takes up the Message to the Poor, the Sick, and the Suffering , which the Council Fathers addressed to the world at the end of the Second Vatican Council, describing the sick as brothers of the suffering Christ and, with him, working for the salvation of the world.

Of course, the Cross of Christ can help the sick give meaning to their situation in life. Yet this is a spiritual journey that must be aided by the comfort and solidarity of those around them. In his Message Benedict XVI underlines this collaboration of the sick on the basis of the importance of their prayers and the offering up of their suffering for the life of priests, whom he calls “ministers of the sick”.

If we consider the prospect that “illness” may be interpreted in a broader sense as an emblem of the human situation, it follows that the pastoral care of health is at its core the pastoral care of the Church.

Contemporary society, as in the past, awaits definitive healing in that Kingdom where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).

The Holy Father's Message is ultimately both in honour of the 18th World Day of the Sick and a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Pontifical Council for Health-Care Workers, as well as being an instrument of spiritual instruction for health-care and pastoral workers. However, it may also be read as a manifesto of that love for neighbour, so dear to the Pope, which must be a feature of Christian witness in every area of life.




St. Peter’s Square

Nov. 22, 2019