Very Rev Dr David Ranson
Diocese of Broken Bay
11 February marks the feast day in our Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, the presentation of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, to young Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes in France in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is also the day each year that we mark as the World Day of the Sick. And each year, the Pope writes to the Church in respect to this day.
This year, Pope Francis reminds us that each of us in some way needs healing – each of us “is poor, needy and destitute” in some part of our lives. As he writes, “When we are born, we require the care of our parents to survive, and at every stage of life we remain in some way dependent on the help of others. We will always be conscious of our limitations, as ‘creatures’, before other individuals and situations.” At first, we might think of this negatively: there is a part of us that resists being dependent on others. But as Francis goes on to advocate, “we should not be afraid to regard ourselves as needy or reliant on others, because individually and by our own efforts we cannot overcome our limitations.” It is precisely the acknowledgement of our limitations that leads us “to practice solidarity as an essential virtue in life” – in other words, to engage a way of living which demonstrates that we find our true selves not in isolation from one another but only in community with and for each other. This is the miracle of care for one another, which so sadly is short circuited in the anaesthetizing of suffering through the termination of life under the false guise of protecting human dignity.
And what is the heart of this practice of solidarity that is a possibility in the recognition of our common need? For Francis, it is the sense that life is a gift. “Precisely because it is a gift, human life cannot be reduced to a personal possession or private property,” he writes. This category of ‘gift’ is what is best suited, he suggests, to counter our individualism and social fragmentation. It is what promotes the relationships between us. Because,
‘Gift’ means more than simply giving presents: it involves the giving of oneself. . . ‘Gift’ differs from gift-giving because it entails the free gift of self and the desire to build relationship. It is the acknowledgement of others, which is the basis of society. ‘Gift’ is a reflection of God’s love which culminates in the incarnation of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
This sense of ‘gift’ is at the heart of our care of the sick in particular. As Francis teaches, care of the sick requires professionalism, but also tenderness, and straightforward and simple gestures freely given, like a caress that makes others feel loved, because, as he says, “We know that health is relational, dependent on interaction with others, and requiring trust, friendship and solidarity.”
All this is especially evidenced in our volunteer work with those who are sick. As Francis observes,
A volunteer is a good friend with whom one can share personal thoughts and emotions; by their patient listening, volunteers make it possible for the sick to pass from being passive recipients of care to being active participants in a relationship that can restore hope and inspire openness to further treatment . . . Volunteer work passes on values, behaviours and ways of living born of a deep desire to be generous. . . . The joy of generous giving is a barometer of the health of a Christian.
Our Diocese of Broken Bay is blessed to have many volunteers who act exactly in this way. Each week many hundreds of people in our diocesan family take Holy Communion to those who are sick in our hospitals, our residential care facilities, and to those in our parishes who are a housebound. In each of our parishes this is a most significant ministry. Such volunteers in our parishes are living examples of what Pope Francis is talking about. As we celebrate World Day of the Sick this week it is important to thank them for their example, for the generous way in which they gift themselves to those in need by their presence of care, and by their investment of time. Hopefully, their example inspires others to join them in this most tender ministry.
Whether we can act as a parish volunteer to the sick or not, let Pope Francis’ Message for the World Day of the Sick this year spur us to recognize that our self-giving to one another is what truly blesses us and our world. We are deeply social beings. There is a voice in us that knows we are at our best when we share life together, when we experience ourselves with a solidarity, and when we recognise we are going somewhere into the future together. May our self-giving to one another especially when occasions of illness or the season of age would withdraw us from our communities bless us in abundance.
Very Rev Dr David Ranson