World Day of the Sick

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World Day of the Sick Conference 2017

Speaking notes of
Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin
Archbishop of Dublin

Royal Marine Hotel Sutton, 11th February 2017

What does it mean for each one of us today to be a missionary disciple of the Jesus who – as we read in the Gospels – went about preaching the Good News and healing the sick? In what way can the Church – the community of the believers in Jesus Christ – reflect in our time such a witness of care to the sick?

Caring for the sick and those who are weighed down by burdens is an essential corollary of preaching the Good News. Everywhere where Jesus preaches the Good News, he also heals the sick. This means that today, any Christian witness which is not accompanied by care for those who are sick and heavily burdened is an inadequate witness to and indeed a distortion of the Good News itself.

That Gospel passage which sets out the criteria of our final judgement (Mt. 25) reminds us that the question we will be asked at the moment of judgement is “when I was sick, did you care for me” and not “when I was sick did you write a letter to the editor about health-care policy”.

Certainly care for the sick involves concern about health care. We are all aware in Ireland today of the real crisis that affects our health care system. Day after day we learn of failures, of systems which are not responding to needs, of a two tier system whose negative effects disproportionately strike the poor, the isolated and the elderly. The crisis of our health care system is probably one of the darkest shadows that hangs over the model of society which is dominant today in our wealthy Ireland. Sadly, it is a system which seems to be trapped within tentacles of its own making, with attempts to address one problem only revealing another and rendering a definitive solution ever more distant.

The first thing to be said about health care in Ireland and it is not said often enough and with sufficient vigour is the fact that there are very few sectors of our community where we encounter men and women of such dedication as those who work in health care. We have highly professional and extraordinarily dedicated doctors and nurses, we have dedicated health care administrators, we have men and women who devote themselves to caring for the sick and the elderly in their own homes, both professionals and carers from within families themselves. We have parishes which are real centres of caring, providing measures ranging, for example, from meals on wheels to simply keeping an eye on the sick and lonely in a neighbourhood. We have those who care for men and women in the final years of their lives through providing palliative care of the highest order.

These men and women are very often those who are most acutely aware of the failings and inadequacies and false spending of systems. As a society we have a responsibility to ensure that these people are not led to lose motivation – or indeed to leave Ireland – through sheer frustration or our lack of interest or recognition of the contribution they bring.

World Day of the Sick is, in fact, a day on which we remember those who are sick but also a day on which we recognise those who dedicate themselves to the care of the sick. It is not just a question of asking what would our health care system be like without those who give and serve way beyond what is their duty. It is a more important moment to remember that a genuine culture of care for the sick and the disadvantaged cannot just be left to the professionals and the institutions. Our health care system will only be reformed when it involves and recognises more effectively the role of the community.

The Christian who is a follower of Jesus the healer must be part of and a builder of a community which cares. The Church itself must be a community where care is embedded in concrete and creative ways. Jesus, we are told, “went about” preaching and healing. The Christian community must also move outwards and reach out. It must constantly try to identify and discover those frontiers and peripheries of society where health care is most needed and least provided.

A culture of care will never flourish in a climate of bureaucracy. We need a strong voluntary sector, a civil society which involves people in a particular way in identifying needs and encouraging a real notion of care. Society needs a strong voluntary sector but it must also be attentive to the governance of that sector. But it is civil society itself which has to ensure that its vitality and idealism remain fresh.

Health care is not about creating a passive environment. A system of health care must focus on new ways in which every man and woman – including the sick and the elderly – can realise themselves fully in the most enriching manner and for as long as they can. It means not leaving everything to anonymous systems, but enriching systems, by ensuring that communities foster a more powerful culture of participation especially of the sick, the elderly and the dependant.

This World Day of the Sick Conference is a moment to assess just how the presence of the Church in health care has changed and is changing. But it is also a forward looking moment which must look at what is the best contribution of the Church community can bring to ensuing a real sustainability through participation.

I congratulate each one of you for the interest and the willingness you show in health care in changing times. The role of the Church in today’s world of health care is not one of abandoning the sphere but of focusing on the special ways in which we, as individual Christians and communities and institutions, can be motivated to seek out the most vulnerable. That contribution may no longer be one which is encapsulated in bricks and mortar and institutions, but one of identifying peripheries, unafraid of entering the uncertain.

On this Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes I think especially of the many young people who join with us on our Diocesan Pilgrimage each September. The encounter with the sick and the less fortunate is a truly formative experience for these young people who discover, as they themselves often tell me, that the sick can be happier than they are. These talented young men and women return home enriched by a unique experience of sharing with the sick and it is curiously the sick who give new light and encouragement and self-esteem to these young people.

Lourdes in that sense is a model of the Church and indeed a model for society. May Mary, Help of the Sick, preside over your work today and help renew within you the desire to become models of that loving care of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.