By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry by the Servant of God, John Paul II, on February 11, 1985. The celebration of this anniversary gives us the topic for our reflection this week.

Care of the sick is a hallmark of Christianity
In his famous book, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the author Erich Maria Remarque notes his good fortune in that, after being wounded as a soldier during World War I, he was taken to a Catholic hospital. He notes that these were known among the soldiers to be places where the wounded were cared for in a particularly fine manner. The author’s taking note of this fact is a reflection of what the Church has endeavored to do throughout her long history: care for the sick and dying with the charity of Jesus. In doing this, we reflect the care that Jesus himself showed for the sick throughout His public ministry.

In the Gospel of St. Mark, we read: “Whatever villages or towns or countryside he entered, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak; and as many touched it were healed” (Mark 6:56).

The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council reminds us that: “The Church encompasses with her love all those who are afflicted by human misery and she recognizes in those who are poor and who suffer, the image of her poor and suffering Founder. She does all in her power to relieve their need and in them she strives to serve Christ” (Lumen Gentium, 8).

It is remarkable to note that there are, at the present time, 117,000 international Catholic organizations in the world that offer health care.

Sickness and suffering in its Christian perspective
It is important to remember that, in caring for the sick we are doing much more than responding to a physical need of a fellow human being. In regard to that great model of Christian charity in caring for the poor, the sick and the dying, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta never tired of saying that what she and her sisters do they do, not because they are humanitarians, but because they are Christians. As praiseworthy as it is to serve the sick in any manner, we do so on an infinitely higher plane and with a supernatural motivation when we give this care following the example of Jesus and seeing Him in those we serve.

The central element in the Christian perspective of suffering is, of course, the example of Jesus. He bore our sins in what He suffered and so sanctified suffering by allowing us to join our own sufferings with His. Along with this, He allows us to share in the glory that is His as He overcomes sin and death in His Resurrection.

Pope John Paul II wrote, in his Apostolic Letter on the mystery of suffering: “Human suffering has reached its culmination in the Passion of Christ. At the same time it has entered into a completely new dimension and a new order; it has been linked to love, to that love which creates good, also drawing it out from evil by means of suffering, just as the supreme good of the Redemption of the world was drawn from the Cross of Christ, and from that Cross constantly takes its beginning” (Salvifici Doloris, 18).

The last word on suffering will always be the Cross. It reminds us that the words of Jesus express no mere detached explanation but a radical sharing in and elevating of the reality of suffering, allowing it to become an instrument of our Redemption.

Health care
In our own city of Philadelphia, we possess a marvelous reminder of the Christian origin of the care of the sick and the fact that hospitals and institutions that care for the ill, the weak, orphans, the elderly, the blind and the mentally and physically challenged were originally founded to respond to the call of the Gospel. The reminder I make mention of concerns Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Hospital, the oldest hospital in the United States.

On its property is an image of the scene from the Gospel of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). The scene, of course, depicts the man attacked by robbers, who is lying wounded and in need of medical help. Jesus tells us that the Samaritan takes charge of his care when others, who should have known better, have passed him by. The image at Pennsylvania Hospital quotes the words of the Gospel, which make up part of the “Christian charter” for the care of the sick and suffering, using the King James version of the Bible: “Take care of him and I will repay thee.”

The establishment and maintenance of well-run hospitals and institutions of charity are examples of what Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “Love needs to be organized if it is to be an ordered service to the community” (Deus Caritas Est, 20).

However, this never takes away the fact that every act of charity is the response of an inspanidual to an inspanidual. We need to be reminded of this more than ever in our age, in which so much bureaucracy, which can be an agent for good and for ill, has come to surround the care of the sick. It can happen that the more that government agencies take over functions which are ultimately for the good of the inspanidual, we can become confronted with the surrender of the basic principles that govern the dignity of the human person.

“Health care” is just that: a caring for the health of an inspanidual. If those words become twisted or misused, making them a monstrous version of what they are meant to be, we must proclaim the truth. For many centuries care for the sick has been seen as a response to the Gospel. Regardless of who takes immediate charge of health care, the teaching of the natural law and of the Gospel cannot be ignored nor can we abdicate our responsibility to uphold them.

In the century just passed, the bloodiest in all human history, untold horrors were committed in the name of an artificially created “public good.” Medical experimentation was even conducted on the most vulnerable members of society because they were seen as expendable and their purpose was viewed as being material for experiments which would “benefit others.” Manipulative images and words were even used in theaters and on billboards, so that a twisting of the emotions by clever manipulators would anesthetize the people to reality and convince them that all was being done for their good and the common good of society. Later, those who opposed these measures were treated as heroes, but, at the time, their voices were few and courageous indeed.

The dignity of the inspanidual and of the sick person is not merely part of an old time gospel story or a quaint relic of Colonial America and its first hospital. It is more topical than ever. It is topical because the care we give to the sick is always the care we give to Jesus Himself, whom we recognize in them.

It is also topical because we must be vigilant in our recognition of human dignity at every stage of life, from conception to natural death. While medical care may need to be organized to be effective, we do not surrender the laws of nature or the laws of God when we entrust that care to organized means. We can never absolve ourselves of that responsibility before God and before the weak and voiceless.

Pope Benedict XVI recently observed: “I am anxious that at this moment in history and culture we are feeling even more acutely the need for an attentive and far-reaching ecclesial presence beside the sick, as well as a presence in society that can effectively pass on the Gospel values that safeguard human life in all its phases, from its conception to its natural end” (Message for the Eighteenth World Day of the Sick, 22 November 2009).

Connection with the Year of the Priest
In his Message for the World Day of the Sick, which coincided this year with the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, our Holy Father wanted to point out the close connection between the priest and the care and consolation of the sick. This has long been an essential part of the priest’s ministry, especially those priests who are engaged in parish work.

The Pope points out that, for the priest, “time spent beside those who are put to the test may bear fruits of grace for all the other dimensions of pastoral care.” He also makes an appeal to the sick, which I also make my own this week as we pray for an increase of priestly vocations within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He writes: “Lastly I address you, dear sick people and I ask you to pray and to offer your suffering up for priests, so that they may continue to be faithful to their vocation and that their ministry may be rich in spiritual fruits for the benefit of the whole Church” (Message).

25 February 2010