World Day of Sick Address

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World Day of the Sick 2015 Seminar


 Speaking notes of  Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin   


Bewley’s Dublin Airport Hotel, 7th February 2015

             “The pastoral care of the sick is an essential part of the pastoral outreach of the life of any parish”.   That may seem an obvious thing to say at a seminar like this. But it is something we have to look at more closely to see exactly what the pastoral care of the sick means.     I could say that the pastoral care of young people or of workers or of the unemployed are all essential dimensions of the pastoral outreach of the parish and of course they are.  But the pastoral care of the sick is something quite different.

Why do I say that and what is the difference.  The first difference is the fact that in his life and mission, Jesus reserved not just a special place for the sick, but the caring for the sick became a pillar of his activity almost on a par with preaching the Good News. Everywhere Jesus went he preached the good news and he healed the sick.  There is something fundamentally interwoven between preaching the Good News and the care of the sick.  Wherever Jesus travelled, when the news of his arrival became known, they immediately brought out the sick so that he could touch them.   A Church where the sick feel marginalized or alone or forgotten, would not reflect the way Jesus preached the Good News.   Without that sense of caring for and embracing the sick we will never properly understand the Good News.

Then there is that remarkable story, in Mark Chapter 6, of Jesus’ visit to his home town where he was so struck by the lack of faith of his own townspeople that he was unable to work any miracle there.  His townspeople felt that somehow that they should have a privileged relationship with him so that they could expect to see even greater miracles than he had worked elsewhere.

The effect was the very opposite.  They thought that they knew Jesus and everything about him because they knew his relatives and his family history.  All of this only blinded them from really understanding Jesus.   Their self-assuredness diverted them in their thoughts and they could not arrive at that true understanding of Jesus which comes only with faith.  Because of their lack of faith, Jesus could perform no miracle there.  But then the Evangelist adds at the last instant:  “He could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them”.

Jesus could not work miracles within the faithless context of those who were the pillars of the respectable, outwardly religious families of Nazareth, but there was something about the faith of the sick which produced the opposite reaction.

What is this telling us?  It is telling us that the pastoral care of the sick is not simply about what we can – and indeed must do – for the sick, but about the fact that we learn something fundamental from the sick.    The sick of Nazareth are the sign of faith whereas the synagogue-going respectable community was the opposite.  This means that the pastoral care of the sick must have special characteristics and must be an encounter in faith.  Pope Francis in his Message for the World Day of the Sick of this year noted that: “Time spent with the sick is holy time”

The pastoral care of the sick then is not just one among the many tasks for the Christian community.  It is not just about doing things but about a deeper encounter with those who are sick, entering into a relationship with them, of knowing them in their deepest identity, especially in their weakness and dependency, and of course praying with them. Note also that Jesus never worked tele-healings, but stopped and touched each sick person individually.   It is in identifying with the sick person that we overcome any false ideas about our own self-importance.  Only then can we become like Jesus and offer the sick true words of fraternity and Christian support and hope.

During this morning, you will have the opportunity to learn concrete suggestions as to how to structure the pastoral care of the sick in a Parish in the Dublin diocese in today’s world.  This should address those who are in hospital and those who are house-bound; those who are looking towards recovery and those who know that their journey is towards death; those who are strong and courageous and those who are tormented and troubled.  The outreach must be towards those who care for sick and those who find they are losing a dear one; those who have the consolation of faith and those who journey without that light.

The particular situation that we encounter in our times, with dramatic cut-backs in health care and services for the care of those who wish to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, means that the role of the community in caring for the sick and the lonely must be intensified.

The pastoral care of the sick in a parish must take place with a trained professional and high quality perspective, in collaboration with public health care services, but it is never just a technical task.  It must be focused on the individual and will require one of those commodities not easy to find in our society: time.   The sick need people who have time to spend with them and who will reliably come back to them.

Professionalism must always be accompanied by simple human warmth.  I still remember something that was said to me many years ago by the Matron of the Hospital where my one father was dying:  She said “you know hospitals are becoming so depersonalised that you cannot light a blessed candle at the bedside of a dying person, for fear that you might blow up the entire hospital because of the technology strung up around the patient”.

We must thank God for the gift of modern medical technology.  However, being sick and above all dying amid all the supports of modern technology may often be a very lonely experience.  The pastoral care of the sick in our parishes must become a catalyst for bringing the gentle care of Jesus into such lives. “