Archbishop Martin’s Homily for the 15th World Day of the Sick

11 Feb 2007

Homily Notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin and Primate of Ireland

11th February 2007 Embargo 3pm

One of the most striking aspects of the way in which Jesus carried out his mission was his attitude to the sick.  Everywhere he went the sick were brought to him.   Probably there is no other group so constantly mentioned in the Gospels as the sick.  Everywhere where Jesus preached the good news and he also met with and healed the sick and those who were troubled.

There is even the extraordinary scene told in the Gospel of Saint Mark (Mark 5: 5-6) in which Jesus visited his own home town and was not accepted by his townspeople.  Mark notes that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith” and that therefore “he could work no miracle there”.  But Mark adds immediately “though he cured some sick people by laying hands on them”!  Jesus’ special care of the sick remained even when he was unable to work any other miracle.  His care for the sick is so great that even the lack of faith of his townspeople cannot hold it back.

The sick are not then simply the objects of the care of the Church.  If we are to be faithful to Jesus and to the Church that he founded then there can be no Church without the sick.  It was unimaginable in his time on earth to find Jesus on his journeys from village to village without finding him surrounded by the sick.   In the same way a Church which did not have the sick as an integral and active part of Church life should be unimaginable today or at any time in history.

Jesus was moved to compassion when he encountered the sick. The authenticity of Church life today must be judged and measured also on how the Church appears as a community in which anyone who is sick and who is troubled and anguished is welcomed with the same compassion, understanding and care.

We thank God for the many individual Christians – health care professionals, pastoral agents and volunteers – and for the many institutions throughout the world who tirelessly serve the sick, in hospitals and in hospices, in their own homes and in parishes.   In places where poverty and hardship cause immense misery and grief these Christians and communities witness to the Lord’s tenderness and compassion.

Caring for the sick is not an option for the Christian, something that can be left to the professionals.   Jesus reminded us that we shall be judged at the end of time on how we visited the sick.  One of the seven sacraments of the Church, one which we shall celebrate today, is the Sacrament of the Sick.  The sacrament of the sick is not simply a personal blessing for an individual who is sick, but it is there, like any of the other sacraments, for the building up of the Church. The sick are not passive members of the Church, much less second class members.  They bring their own contribution to the life of the Church, a contribution which all of us must recognise and from which of us must learn.

When Jesus came to his own town his townsfolk, as I said earlier, did not believe in him.  Somehow they thought that just because they knew him and his family that had a special title to see miracles as in other places and perhaps even more spectacular ones.     But there was no way in which faith could emerge from such smugness and self sufficiency.  Jesus could work no miracles because of their lack of faith.   The only trace of faith that Jesus encountered was that of the sick people, who in their weakness were able to recognise their need for redemption and the limitedness of what each of us can attain on our own.   There is a sense in which it is only when we become like the sick that we can enter into the kingdom. It is only when we recognise our own limitedness that we permit the saving power of Jesus to work in us and transform us.

The value of human life is not to be measured by success or celebrity, by genius or length of days, by outward dress or personal attractiveness.  Life has a value in itself and must be prized even when it is at its weakest.   A society which prizes only success will inevitably be inhuman and will leave those who are not able to meet its standard feel inferior and worthless.   Where success is the prime measure for establishing self esteem, how many will be lead to desperation, frustration and despair?   This is perhaps one of the reasons why in our highly successful Ireland we have such a high level of fragility – and sadly of suicide – among young people.   

In a society which prizes only success there will be uneasiness on the part of both the successful and the less successful about the presence among us of people who are weak.  A vision of life which does not also prize humans in their weakness will grow to fear weakness and want weakness to be excluded from public view.  Life is a gift which can only understand in terms of the One who gives us life.  It is our challenge to interpret what that vision of life is rather than try to place our own interpretation.

There is a strange paradox today in which at one and the same time around the world there are attempts to introduce measures which would enable medical professionals be part of a legal process for taking the life of the terminally ill, and at the same time there are those will go to any end to prolong life to an extent which seems to reject the fact that natural death is precisely that, a natural experience to which each of us is called and for which we must be prepared.  Human life sooner or later it ends in death.   Death is a natural moment in the life of each of us, but a most significant moment where the way we lived that life is adjudicated, and which the believer knows is the door opens the path to new life.

I often think of the work of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta with the poorest of the poor.  There were those who at her death criticised her for simply having provided services for the poor rather than devoting her time and talents to becoming a worldwide lobbyist for change in healthcare politics.   

They do not seem to realise that her simple gestures to individual poor and dying was the most potent lobbying that could be imagined if they had only focussed on what it signified.  What could enhance the dignity of a person more than enabling them to  encounter the moment of death in the dignified yet simple surroundings of a loving community, rather than to have to die on the streets and in the gutters abandoned and without love.   Mother Teresa witnessed to the dignity of the terminally ill, and reminded us that even those who were poorest and most abandoned, are to be treated as a brother or a sister with whom we were linked with a debt of love precisely because they were human beings.

The Gospel we have just heard is a Gospel which indicates a different logic to the logic of much of the world that surrounds us.  According to the logic of the Gospel it is not the successful and the wealthy, the celebrities or the fine-looking that are too prized in any society and to be called blessed.  It is rather the poor, those who are hungry, and those who weep.   Being rich or filled with gratification or surrounded with respect does not on its own guarantee that we will attain happiness in this life or in the next.

Our faith in God does not mean, however, that we demean medical science and progress. Progress in medical science is indeed a progress of increasing penetration into the mystery of God’s goodness revealed in creation.   The aim of medical science is to improve the manner in which each person can foster and realise their God-given gifts to the highest level possible for as long as possible.

Yes, sickness inevitably brings with it a moment of crisis and sober confrontation with one’s own personal situation.   We will never fully understand the mystery of suffering.  But that mystery should drive us forward to stress the need for top class palliative care centres which offer the terminally ill the human assistance and spiritual accompaniment they need and the security always that even at their weakest moments their right to life will at all times be respected and never compromised.

As Jesus journeyed and encountered the sick, Mary his Mother was always there, pondering on how as had been prophesised at his birth, the goodness and love kindness which her son performed would one day mysteriously lead to his moment of suffering and death. Just as Mary stood by Jesus even until the Cross, know that she is with you who are sick and troubled today, to help you ponder the word of God in your heart and lead you on the path of hope.