6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
World Day of the Sick Mass
Basilica of the Assumption
Feb. 16, 2020
As I mentioned at the beginning of Mass, today we observe the World Day of the Sick. It is a day set aside by the Church to pray for all those who are ill in mind or body. If there is someone in your family who is seriously ill or if a friend or colleague facing an illness has asked your prayers, this is a special moment in which to commend them to Jesus, the Divine Physician, who cured so many people of illness of soul and body while on this earth. It is a special moment in which to ask Mary to help them by her prayers, invoking her intercession under the title of Our Lady, Health of the Sick.
World Day of the Sick is also an appropriate day to pray for those who lack adequate health care, both in the United States and around the world. How to provide adequate health care in the United States remains a hot topic but in many parts of the world, there is little health care and conditions are appalling. I note the heroic work of Catholic Relief Services, headquartered here in Baltimore, in bringing much needed medical and social services to the world’s poorest citizens.
And please, let us remember in a special way all those who dedicate their lives to caring for the sick – physicians, nurses, medical technicians, hospital administrators, to name but a few. We are blessed today by the presence of many medical professionals, and by representatives of the Catholic medical centers in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, as well as by priests and lay ministers who serve the spiritual needs of the sick. With us today are members of the Catholic Medical Association, medical professionals and scholars who are dedicated to the practice of medicine in an ethical manner that truly respects the God-given dignity of the human person from the moment of conception until natural death. With us today are members of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, whose members exercise Christian virtue and charity towards the poor and the sick, most especially by taking the malades on pilgrimage to Lourdes every year. I would also like to greet the missionaries of this Basilica Parish, the “source of all hope missionaries” who extend the Lord’s love and healing presence to the many homeless individuals who are in this part of Baltimore City, a love and a healing that flows from the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I thank all of you for your presence and for all that you do for those who suffer from diseases of body and soul!
The Experience of Being Sick
And let’s face it, dear friends, getting sick is a common experience. Last week I travelled to Rome and as I walked through the airport in New York it seemed as though every other person was wearing a face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus and other communicable diseases. The rapid spread of that deadly virus reminds us of our human fragility. How easily we can be a good health one day and be fighting for our lives the next.
Even if our illnesses are not life-threatening, we need to take them seriously. Sometimes even the sturdiest among us is felled by the flu or by a bad cold. We might have to take time off from work or rest a little more or forego sports or other leisure activities or social events. We’re stuck at home; we’re bored with TV; we’ve had our fill of the Internet, and, glory be, we find ourselves “unplugged” and alone with our thoughts. In such circumstances, my advice would be to seek appropriate medical help but also not to let the experience of being sick go to waste. Illness has something to teach us and so do those who are sick. Here is where today’s Scripture readings click in. God’s Word helps us see how illness is “God’s megaphone”, as C.S. Lewis put it; our readings help us see what God might be trying to tell us in the midst of illness, in fact, four lessons that we might take away from this Mass and ponder.
What Direction Is My Life Taking
The first has to do with the overall direction of our lives. If, when we’re sick, we do in fact unplug and disengage from our usual activities, we have a golden opportunity to examine the overall direction of our lives. And if we give ourselves half a chance, we won’t have to force this experience; that very question will surface, more or less spontaneously. Something deep within us will ask, not only how life is going, but more importantly, where we are headed, if you will, the “quo vadis” question! Taking our cue from today’s reading from the Book of Sirach, we should seriously ask ourselves if our lives are in harmony with God’s will. Sirach says, “If you choose you can keep God’s commandments”… and again … before us “are life and death, good and evil”. Whatever we choose, Scripture says, will be given to us. Now and then, but especially when we’re laid low by illness, it is important for us to look at the big picture in our lives. Are our lives oriented to God, are we striving to keep the commandments, to grow in virtue, and to be pleasing in God’s eyes? … that’s the first takeaway.
What Is the Condition of My Heart?
Here’s the second: While lying in bed or resting in a favorite easy chair, we might also inquire about the condition of our heart. Here I’m not referring to information we might get from a cardiac specialist. No, I speaking about the condition of our inmost self, our heart of hearts, that secret room in the depth of our being where the voice of God echoes. It is there, in that inmost sanctuary, that you and I are alone with our thoughts, but not completely alone, for as Sirach also tells us, God in his wisdom is all-seeing. He reads the thoughts of our hearts and he knows our true intentions.
That is why, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stresses purity of heart – “Blessed are the pure of heart,” he says, “for they shall see God.” Today’s Gospel is an extension of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells us that it’s not enough to obey the commandments externally – merely to fall in line, buck up, and refrain from outward evil actions. Important as it is to refrain from any and every evil action, it is also important that our hearts be cleansed of evil thoughts. So, it’s not enough to refrain from killing another; we must cease being angry. It’s not enough to bring our gift to the altar; we must be reconciled with our neighbor. Nor is it enough to refrain from engaging in adultery; we must be cleansed of lust. When we ask for the grace and wisdom to see our hearts as God sees them, then we may find a need to betake ourselves to the cardiac care unit, not the one in the hospital but the one in the back of the Church, the confessional! Yes, we can learn a lot from being sick!
Hope of Eternal Life
But there’s more – a third takeaway! Many saints, such as Ignatius of Loyola, have used recuperation time as a moment of grace when they set their sights on the hope of everlasting life. In time of illness, we have a special opportunity to share in the sufferings of Christ. Even if we are doing so in only a small way, we can come to realize that Christ suffered and died so that we might live eternally in heaven, where, as St. Paul says to us today, “eye has not seen and ear has not heart… what God has prepared for those who love him…” Illness has a way of reminding us of how fleeting is our life on earth and opening our hearts to the reality of the world that is to come.
Compassion for the Sick
Allow me to mention one last takeaway of the importance of being sick. Often, when we are ill, others express concern for us – perhaps getting us a prescription or even bringing a bowl of chicken soup. Perhaps our doctor helps us with good medical treatment and a comforting smile. All this should make us realize the importance of compassion – not only the compassion that is shown to us but indeed the compassion we need to extend to others, most especially those who are chronically ill, the people who live on our streets, those who lack adequate health care, and suffering people throughout the world. Compassion means “suffering with” – first and foremost suffering “with Christ” but also suffering with those who are ill, especially those who are seriously ill. This always involves going out of our way and inconveniencing ourselves for the sake of others.
If, amid sickness, we discern the direction of our lives, and lucidly examine the quality of our interior life, rekindle hope of everlasting life and learn anew the lesson of compassion – then our illness will not be wasted but become a great grace for ourselves and others. Jesus, Divine Physician, have mercy on us! Mary, Health of the Sick, pray for us!