Thursday, February 9, 2012

Look at me!

World Day of Prayer for the Sick 2012

A 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. Archbishop Ha shared a personally moving experience he had of the saintly pope 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 our patronal feast day in honour of Our Lady of Lourdes, the day declared by Blessed 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 to this mass and other pilgrims have travelled here and waited patiently to get a taste of Lourdes water for the same reason. Many hope to receive some miraculous cure to your diseases. Others hope to find a solution to your predicament. 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 the Venerable Pope which I’ve just mentioned, Blessed John Paul II.

It is no secret that this charismatic and media savvy Pope was exceptionally gifted from youth. 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, the Venerable Pope suffered an assassination attempt in Rome. The pope did regain—for a time—his health and vigour after recuperating from the assassination attempt.

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. The point of these sobering details is to show that John Paul was clearly 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. This was, perhaps, doubly true for all those people around the globe who were themselves bearing some cross or affliction. 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 fulfill his ministry as pope. He bore his infirmities as if they were badges of honor and opportunities for imitating the courage of the suffering Christ. His humble, unpretentious and unembarrassed acceptance of suffering was a dramatic form of witness. The pope offered the world a wonderful model for responding with grace to the test of suffering and illness. As Cardinal Ratzinger observed, John Paul II helps us realize that “even age has a message, and suffering a dignity and a salvific force.”

Besides being a heroic witness in the face of suffering, Pope John Paul II has often written inspiringly on the subject. In 1984, for example, 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? Why in this unexpected form? The pope, in his letter, states 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).

In 1993, Pope John Paul II instituted the Annual World Day of the Sick as a way to bring compassion and greater attention to the sufferings of humanity, as well as to the mystery of suffering itself. In John Paul’s message for that First Annual World Day of the Sick, he offered these words of comfort to suffering people around the world: “In the light of Christ’s death and resurrection, illness no longer appears as an exclusively negative event,” he said. “[R]ather, it is seen opportunity ‘to release love..., to transform the whole of human civilisation into a civilisation of love’ (Apostolic Letter Salvifici doloris, #30)” (#3).

On the 2nd of April 2005, Blessed Pope 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 Mother Superior of her convent confronts Bernadette who appeared loitering in the refectory whilst her other sisters were out doing fruitful manual labour. The Mother Superior 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.’

We cannot really choose to have no pain in our lives, because pain in some form is inescapable. We have no choice about pain or suffering. Sooner or later everyone must face it. Even Jesus and his mother had to undergo pain. Whether we bear it with love or not, however, is a different matter. We do have a real choice there. We are free to choose “the pain of loving” or “the pain of not loving,” the latter being a pain that is empty and barren—a pain without any redeeming qualities. We know that Jesus and his mother and other heroic witnesses like John Paul and Bernadette Soubiroux have chosen the “pain of loving.” That is, they undergo suffering for the love of God and of humanity, so their pain has rich meaning.

Those who suffer the limitations exacted by old age and illness would sound just like the servants of the wedding feast who came to report to Mary in today’s gospel, ‘The wine has run out … we have no more wine.’ 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 Blessed John Paul II and Bernadette Soubiroux 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. Know this - your infirmities are no obstacles to life and to ministry. Just like 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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