10/02/08 World Day of Sick

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Homily Notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland
Kimmage Manor Church, 10th February 2008

This is an unusual gathering.  Someone coming from outside might be tempted to look on this as a sad event, an event in which we encounter the sadness of sickness and human weakness.   But sadness is not the dominant emotion that we believers see here today.  

We encounter here something of the spirit of Lourdes, on the eve of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the first apparition to Saint Bernadette.  Lourdes is a place where accepted values are overturned.   Lourdes is a place where human weakness is looked on with respect. The sick and the handicapped are treated in Lourdes as the most privileged pilgrims.  No one in Lourdes is judged on outward appearances.  In a world full of self confidence, those who are troubled, those who are anxious are accepted and recognised really as pilgrims, on the path towards an acceptance of that “joyful hope” to which we are all called. In Lourdes, also, a holy shrine welcomes humble sinners who come to repent.

Lourdes is a shrine of Mary, but Mary is the first to point our hearts and minds towards her son Jesus.  Mary in her short conversations with Bernadette indicates to us the path towards her son: the path of repentance and penance, the path of prayer and of the Eucharist.

The early date of Easter means that this year, unusually, World Day of the Sick coincides with the first Sunday of Lent.
 We have heard the Gospel of the temptations of Jesus which belongs to this Sunday.  The narrative of the temptations takes us deeper into the quest for the identity of Jesus and then to seek for the meaning of our own lives and existence.   The story of the temptations is well known to us and it appears in all the three synoptic Gospels. It is a Gospel story which however requires interpretation to understand its meaning fully. 

If we are to look for some key of interpretation, we might look at the fact that all the answers of Jesus to the tempter are all quotations from the Old Testament.  They are all answers taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, written in that the period in which God’s people were tested in the wilderness.  The Old Testament presentations of those who remain faithful to God should be seen as signs of how the one would appear who was to come and to save his people.  Jesus, in the story of his temptations, identifies himself with and brings to fulfilment the fidelity that God’s people showed in the face of their test in the wilderness.
The Gospel narrative then is not just the story of an event in Jesus life, it is confrontation of two visions, of two different understandings of what Jesus’ mission is and of two different understanding of the meaning of human life.

Satan in this Gospel is the voice which explains the expectation of those without faith.    Satan proposes a messiah or a vision of life which is primarily materialistic, in which “having things” will satisfy the deeper hungers of humankind. Satan proposes a vision for humankind in which suffering and pain can be totally eliminated through external gestures, rather than in a manner which touches the depth of the hearts of those who suffer.  Satan proposes that power – political or economic – can resolve the problems of humankind.

In many ways these same temptations colour the life of people and even Christian believers today.  It is the temptation to think that humankind and scientific progress on their own can resolve all the problems of humankind. 

I am not saying that human progress is to be brushed aside as irrelevant.  I am saying that it has its limits and ambiguities.   There is striking phrase in Pope Benedict’s recent Encyclical Letter on hope: “There is no doubt that “the Kingdom of God” accomplished without God – a kingdom therefore of human creation alone – inevitably ends up as the perverse end of all things”.

Yes, we have seen great progress in our world, in the area of medicine, and science and communications.  But progress is ambiguous. It can work one way or another.   It can be placed at the service of all or of a few.  It can serve good or it can create suffering of a kind unknown in the past.  The seed of much of the damage that has been done to our environment today was sown yesterday in the name of progress, without real discernment; in gestures of progress which we acclaimed before recognising their full significance. Progress must be examined and discerned by deeper criteria.

The task of the discernment is especially difficult today.  Many of the fundamental thrusts, movements and trends in contemporary cultural thought are attractive and do indeed reflect dimensions of true progress.  But human progress is always by its very nature ambiguous and it is hard for us living in the midst of the to-ings and fro-ings of everyday life to attain the internal freedom to carry out that discernment. 

Let us come back to the story of the temptations.   How does Jesus face the temptation?  What does his reaction tell us of how, throughout the course of history, we his disciples should also face temptation?    Jesus faces the tempter with fidelity; he remains true to God’s ways, despite any attractions the suggestions of Satan might contain.   Jesus faithfulness points the way in which we also should place our hope.

 There is another phrase of Pope Benedict’s Encyclical which I think can be helpful here.  It is about prayer.  Pope Benedict notes:  “To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness.  When we pray properly, we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well.  In prayer we learn what we can truly ask of God – what is worthy of God.  We must learn that we cannot pray against others.  We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at the moment – that meagre misplaced hope which leads us away from God.  We must learn to purify our desires and hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with in us which deceive us”.
As sick persons you pray that the Lord would intervene in your lives.   At the same time, you trust in God even when God’s ways seem to be leading you in another direction.   It is in this moment that in your suffering you look at the body of Jesus, given over to death and crucifixion, apparently destined to failure, but which through the power of God’s love is risen up and generate new life for us all.

In his message for this World Day of the Sick Pope Benedict speaks about the Eucharist.  “It thus appears clear that it is specifically from the Eucharist that pastoral care in health must draw the necessary spiritual strength to come effectively to our aid and to help us to understand the salvific value of his own suffering”.

Christian pastoral care in health, like any other form of pastoral activity, finds its summit and its peak in the Eucharist, because it is in the Eucharist that the sick person can be mysteriously united to Christ, the one who suffers with love and thus becomes a living offering for the salvation of the world.   The Eucharist is the great gift of God for the life of the world.

Pastoral care of the sick cannot look on the Eucharist as something marginal to its identity. Pastoral care of the sick is not simply counselling and helping to cope with suffering.  It is in the Eucharist that the participation of human suffering in the salvific work of God becomes the door by which to enter the mystery of the redemptive suffering of Jesus and to reach with him the peace and happiness of his Resurrection.

Scientific progress has its limits.  We can find our path to life in suffering only by following Jesus in his path of fidelity, overcoming hope in the things which may appear attractive and progressive but that pass. If we remain faithful, as Jesus did, angels will come to minister to us also. In our suffering we will encounter that mysterious help from above.  Then through being united with Jesus in the Eucharist, we will be supported by that unique nourishment in this life which indeed endures for ever