Thursday, February 11, 2016

Look at Me

World Day of Prayer for the Sick 2016

A few year ago, while I was in Kuching for a speaking engagement, I had the privilege of attending mass and listening to the homily delivered by Most Revd John Ha, Archbishop of Kuching, on the occasion of the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II. Only last year, the path chosen by Pope Emeritus Benedict was completed by his successor, Pope Francis, with the canonisation of this saintly Pope. Archbishop Ha shared a personally moving experience he had of Pope St John Paul during an Ad Limina visit of the bishops of the Regional Conference to Rome. He recalled that the Venerable Pope, already carrying the burden of age and the dilapidating effects of Parkinson disease, after having listened to the reports from the dioceses of the region, made this profound statement as a form of encouragement to his brother bishops. What had been a commanding charismatic voice was now reduced to slurred drawl, and yet the words were unmistakable. “If you ever feel like giving up, Look at Me.”

On this day, the day we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, the day declared by St John Paul II as World Day of Prayer for the Sick, we are asked to contemplate not just the message of healing, which all the sick and elderly would happily welcome, but also the message of suffering as prophecy, suffering as redemption. Today, the shrine of Lourdes in France is the most visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world - principally because of the apparent healing properties of the waters of the spring that appeared during the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a poor, fourteen-year-old girl, Bernadette Soubiroux. Today, many of you have come here hoping to receive some miraculous cure to your diseases. Still many others come here seeking for peace in the midst of troubles. But Our Lady of Lourdes promises more than just physical healing. The message of our Lady in Lourdes as in many other shrines all over the world remain consistent – it is a call to conversion, a call to faith, a call to unite oneself with her Son.

At this mass, I would like to speak of suffering and sickness in the light of the model presented to us by the man responsible for instituting this celebration and dedicating it to the sick – namely Pope Saint John Paul II. Karol Wojtyla, as a young man and even during the early years of his pontificate, was a picture of health, vigour and vitality. As an athlete skilled in soccer, swimming, canoeing and skiing, he exhibited a great physical presence. However, in 1981, he suffered an assassination attempt in Rome.

In the early 90s, however, a series of health problems began to take their toll. In 1992, the pope had colon surgery, involving removal of a noncancerous tumor. The next year he fell and dislocated a shoulder. In 1994, he suffered a broken femur in another fall. An appendectomy followed in 1996. During these years, moreover, a Parkinson-like condition, if not the disease itself, began to reveal its visible effects. He was entering the part of his life’s journey marked by failing health and suffering. Describing the Holy Father in the fall of 1998, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated: “The pain is written on his face. His figure is bent, and he needs to support himself on his pastoral staff. He leans on the cross, on the crucifix....” Certainly John Paul was beginning to lean on Christ’s cross in more ways than one.

Many observers and Catholic faithful agreed that there is something beautiful and noble in the pope’s witness. He carried his suffering in a prophetic manner. His courageous perseverance in carrying out his activities as pope, despite his physical afflictions, was a heart-lifting example for all of us. Many of us, faced with the same tests, would be tempted to shrink from public view, as if infirmity were an embarrassment or personal disgrace. Not so for this pope. He refused to go into hiding as long as he could effectively fulfil his ministry as pope. He bore his infirmities as if they were badges of honour and opportunities for imitating the courage of the suffering Christ. By bearing his sufferings boldly and publicly, he was bidding the world with that same message he gave to our Malaysian bishops, “If you ever feel like giving up, look at me.”

In 1984, he published the apostolic letter “On the Christian Meaning of Suffering.” When confronted with suffering, most of us desperately seek answers to the question ‘Why’? Why me? Why now? The pope responds by telling us that Christ does not really give us an answer to such questions, but rather a lived example. When we approach Christ with our questions about the reason for suffering, says the pope, we cannot help noticing that the one to whom we put the questions “is himself suffering and wishes to answer...from the Cross, from the heart of his own suffering.... “Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering,” he points out, “but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world....Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him” (#26).

On the 2nd of April 2005, Pope St John Paul II took his last breath and died. For a pope who has devoted his papacy to defending the right to life, his valiant battle with death was poignantly apt. Pressured to abdicate the Pontifical throne, the Venerable Pope’s reply was not that of someone who was delusional nor was he clinging on to life or to his office in defiance of death. Holding the heavy of office of his papacy to his deathbed was another sign of his faithfulness to the Cross of Christ, a faithfulness that was not going to be diminished by ill health or death.

The paradox of suffering as something redemptive and prophetic can also be seen in the seer of Lourdes, St Bernadette. Although she was singly privileged with the apparitions of Our Lady and was the first to taste the miraculous healing waters of Lourdes, she would continue carrying the burden of illness throughout her short life. In one particularly moving episode of her life, the Novice Mistress of her convent confronts Bernadette who appeared loitering in the refectory whilst her other sisters were out doing fruitful manual labour. The Novice Mistress asked her in a stern voice, ‘What do you think you are doing here?’ To which she received this reply from Bernadette, ‘I’m busy working.’ Her superior sensing sarcasm in the answer, presses, ‘Pray tell me, what are you working at?’ Bernadette replies, ‘My work is to be sick.’

Many who suffer the infirmities of aging and illness may ask the poignant question, ‘What can I possibly do in my present condition?’ Old age and illness both seem to be impediments to all the things a person hopes to achieve in his or her life. But the lives of St John Paul II and St Bernadette reminds us, especially those of you who have come today leaning on the cross of Christ, that your suffering need not be futile nor meaningless. In the sacrament of the Eucharist and in the sacrament of anointing, you will be united to Him. Just like St Bernadette, your greatest work at this point is to be sick, for in courageously bearing with your sickness, in continuing to show love despite your pain and fatigue, you reveal and proclaim the profound mystery of Christ presence even in the midst of suffering. Today, Christ comforts you. He consoles you. He encourages you. And if any of you feel like giving up, Christ from the cross says this to you, “Look at Me!”

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