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The Church sees Christ's face in the sick

Catechesis by Pope John Paul II on the Church
General Audience, Wednesday 15 June 1994 - in Italian & Spanish  

"1. In an earlier catechesis we discussed the dignity of those who suffer and their apostolate in the Church. Today, let us consider more specifically the sick and infirm, because the trials to which health is subjected, today as in the past, stand out clearly in human life. The Church must take to heart the need to be close to and to share in this painful mystery that links so many people of every era to Jesus Christ's state during his passion.

Everyone has some health problems. But some have more than others, such as those who suffer from a permanent affliction or who are subjected, by some irregularity or physical weakness, to many ailments. One need only go into a hospital to discover the world of the sick, the face of human pain and suffering. It is impossible for the Church not to see and help others to see in this face the features of the Christus patiens, and not to remember the divine plan that leads these lives in precarious health to a higher order of fruitfulness. There has to be an ecclesia compatiens with Christ, and with all those who suffer.

2. Jesus showed his compassion for the sick and the infirm, revealing his great kindness and tenderness of heart. He was also prepared to save those suffering in soul and body by means of his power to work miracles. He therefore worked many cures, so many that the sick flocked to him to benefit from his miraculous power. As the evangelist Luke said, numerous crowds assembled not only to hear him, but also "to be cured of their ailments" (Lk 5:5). In his dedication to freeing those who approached him from the burden of sickness or infirmity, Jesus allows us to glimpse the special intention of God's mercy in their regard. God is not indifferent to the sufferings caused by disease and offers his help to the sick through the saving plan that the incarnate Word reveals and fulfills in the world.

3. Indeed Jesus considered and treated the sick and infirm in the light of the saving work he was sent to accomplish. Bodily cures are part of this work of salvation and at the same time, they are signs of the great spiritual healing he brings humanity. This loftier intention of his emerged clearly when he first forgave the sins of a paralytic, brought before him to be cured. Aware of the unstated objections of some of the Scribes and Pharisees about the exclusive power of God in this regard, he declared: "'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth,' he said to the paralytic, 'I say to you, rise, pick up your mat and go home'" (Mk 2:10-11).

In this case and in many others, Jesus wanted to show by a miracle his power of freeing the human soul from its sins and purifying it. He cured the sick in view of this superior gift, which he offers to all men, in other words, spiritual salvation (cf. CCC 549). The sufferings of illness cannot cause us to forget the overriding importance of spiritual salvation for everyone.

4. Therefore in this perspective of salvation, Jesus asks for faith in his power as Savior. In the case of the paralytic just mentioned, Jesus responded to the faith of the four people who had brought him the sick man: "Jesus saw their faith," says Mark (2:5).

He asked for faith from the father of the epileptic, saying: "Everything is possible to one who has faith" (Mk 9:23). He was deeply impressed by the centurion's faith: "You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you" (Mt 8:13), and the Canaanite woman's: "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish" (Mt 15:28). The miracle worked for the blind Bartimaeus was attributed to his faith: "Your faith has saved you" (Mk 10:52). He spoke similar words to the woman with a hemorrhage: "Daughter your faith has saved you" (Mk 5:34).

Jesus wished to inculcate the idea that faith in him, inspired by the desire to be healed, is meant to bring about spiritual salvation, which counts even more. From the gospel episodes cited, we know that in the divine plan, sickness can prove to stimulate faith. The sick are spurred to live the time of their illness as a more intense period of faith, and thus as a time for sanctification and for a more complete and conscious acceptance of the salvation that comes from Christ. It is a great grace to receive this light about the profound truth of illness!

5. The Gospel attests that Jesus associated his apostles with his power to heal the sick (cf. Mt 10:1). Thus, when he took leave of them before the ascension, he indicated the cures they were to work as one of the signs of the truth of the Gospel preaching (cf. Mk 16:17-20). The Gospel had to be brought to the world, to all peoples, amid humanly insurmountable difficulties. This explains why in the early days of the Church many miraculous healings occurred, emphasized in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. 3:1-10; 8:7; 9:33-35; 14:8-10; 28:8-10). In later periods, there have always been cures considered "miraculous." This is attested in authoritative historical and biographical sources and in the documentation of causes for canonization. We know that the Church is very demanding in this respect. This corresponds to her duty to be prudent. However, in the light of history, one cannot deny many cases which in every age prove the Lord's extraordinary intervention on behalf of the sick. Nevertheless, although the Church always relies on this kind of intervention, she does not feel dispensed from her daily obligation to comfort and care for the sick, both with her traditional charitable institutions and with the modern network of health-care services.

6. Indeed, in the perspective of faith, sickness assumes a greater nobility and proves especially effective in helping the apostolic ministry. In this regard, the Church does not hesitate to state her need for the sick and their sacrifice to the Lord in order to obtain more abundant graces for all humanity. If in the light of the Gospel illness can be a time of grace, a time when divine love more deeply penetrates those who suffer, there is no doubt that by their self-offering, the sick and the infirm sanctify themselves and contribute to the sanctification of others.

This is especially true for those who are dedicated to the service of the sick and the infirm. This service is a way of sanctification like illness itself. Down the centuries it has been a manifestation of the love of Christ, who is precisely the source of holiness.

This service requires dedication, patience and sensitivity, together with a great capacity for compassion and understanding. This is all the more so because, in addition to medical care in the strict sense, the sick also need moral comfort, as Jesus advises: "I was...ill and you cared for me" (Mt 25:36).

7. All this contributes to building up the body of Christ in charity, both through the effectiveness of the sacrifice of the sick, and through the practice of virtue in those who care for them or visit them. Thus the mystery of the Church, mother and minister of charity, is realized. Artists such as Piero della Francesca have painted it. In the Polyptych of Mercy, painted in 1448 and preserved in Borgo San Sepolcro, he shows the Virgin Mary as an image of the Church in the act of spreading her mantle to protect the faithful. They are the weak, the poor, the disheartened, the people, the clergy and consecrated virgins, as Bishop Fulbert of Chartres listed them in a homily written in 1208.

For an effective exercise of the therapy of love, we should strive to make our humble and loving service to the sick share in that of the Church our Mother, of which Mary is the perfect example (cf. LG 64-65).

After the Catechesis, Papa Giovanni Paolo II greeted the pilgrims in various languages

Ai fedeli di lingua francese

Chers frères et sœurs,

Jésus a rencontré des malades et les a guéris physiquement et spirituellement. Il leur demandait simplement d’avoir foi en Lui.

Les Apôtres ont reçu du Christ le pouvoir de faire des guérisons. A leur suite, l’Eglise a le devoir de venir en aide à tous les malades. C’est pour elle une source de sanctification: qu’elle continue donc à exercer cette “ thérapie de l’amour ”!

Je dis à tous les malades qui m’entendent: “ Courage! Vous n’êtes pas seuls! ”. Et vous tous ici présents, je vous bénis de grand cœur.

Ai pellegrini di lingua inglese

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In today’s catechesis we are considering the vast world of human sickness and pain. In the infirm, the Church sees the suffering Christ. From the Gospel we learn that Jesus comforts the sick and the handicapped with his tender love, and that the trials of illness can awaken a more profound faith, inviting the sick to offer their suffering for the sanctification of themselves and of the world. Following the example of Mary, Mother of Mercy, the Church constantly strives to bring those who are ill her assistance and compassion, and the healing power of Christ’s grace.

I extend a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims and I cordially invoke upon you the love and peace of Christ our Saviour.

Ai fedeli di lingua tedesca

Liebe Schwestern und Brüder

Herzlich heiße ich Euch, die Pilger und Besucher aus den Ländern deutscher Sprache, willkommen. Unsere Gedanken lenken wir heute auf die kranken und schwachen Menschen, die der Kirche besonders am Herzen liegen. Jesus selber wandte sich ihnen in liebender Sorge zu, weil er ihnen körperliche Gesundheit schenken und sie gleichzeitig von der Krankheit der Seele, der Sünde, befreien wollte. Versuchen auch wir an dieser umfassenden Sorge der Kirche im Dienst an den Kranken und Notleidenden teilzuhaben durch eine wirksame ”Therapie der Liebe“. Dazu erteile ich Euch gern meinen Apostolischen Segen.

Ai pellegrini di lingua spagnola

Amadísimos hermanos y hermanas,

La Iglesia se acerca a los que sufren en el cuerpo o en el espíritu con la misma caridad y ternura que Cristo tuvo con ellos. Los enfermos que El sanó son signo de la gran curación espiritual que trajo a la humanidad, es decir, la liberación del pecado. Por eso, con su pasión, Cristo ayuda a cada enfermo a aceptar los propios dolores y molestias y a ofrecerlos por la salvación de los demás. Con todo afecto saludo a los peregrinos de lengua española y les imparto mi Bendición, extensiva especialmente a sus familiares enfermos.

Ai fedeli di lingua portoghese

Queridos peregrinos de língua portuguesa,

A doença, cedo ou tarde, bate à porta de todos, levando cada qual a reproduzir em si próprio os traços de Cristo, “ o Homem das dores ”. À vista do seu Senhor: “ estive doente - diz Jesus - e vieste visitar-Me ”, a Igreja redobra seus cuidados e presença materna junto dos doentes, para que o amor divino neles penetre mais profundamente, frutificando em sentimentos de filial confiança e abandono nas mãos do Pai celeste para a salvação do mundo. O Papa conta muito com esta oferta dos que sofrem e quantos os servem: por ela vos agradece e abençoa.

Ai fedeli polacchi

Niech będzie pochwalony Jezus Chrystus! Są obecne grupy: pielgrzymi z parafii Cieszków, z parafii Sułów, z parafii Świnoujście i Międzyzdroje, z parafii św. Jerzego z Biłgoraja, inni pielgrzymi z kraju i z emigracji oraz grupy turystyczne z Bielska-Białej, Katowic, Słupska i Opola, pielgrzymka z parafii św. Piotra Apostoła w Wadowicach, św. Wojciecha z Krakowa, od ojców dominikanów w Małym Cichym i na Wiktorówkach, Liceum Ogólnokształcące w Libiążu - Szkoła Katolickiego Stowarzyszenia Wychowawców, XXIV Liceum Ogólnokształcące z Krakowa, pielgrzymi z sanktuarium Matki Bożej z Piekar Śląskich wraz z przedstawicielami władz miejskich i z proboszczem, z Bytomia - pielgrzymka z parafii św. Stanisława Biskupa i Męczennika, z Dąbrowy Górniczej - pielgrzymka z parafii Matki Bożej Anielskiej, z Bydgoszczy - z parafii Matki Bożej Pięknej Miłości, z Lęborka - z parafii św. Franciszka, młodzież z parafii Najświętszego Zbawiciela w Ustce, z Gdyni - pielgrzymi z parafii Świętego Ducha i również z parafii Wniebowzięcia Matki Bożej, z Nowego Tomyśla (archidiecezja poznańska) - z parafii Matki Bożej Nieustającej Pomocy, z Wrocławia - pielgrzymka rodzin wojskowych z Kościoła Garnizonowego, z Brzegu - pielgrzymka ministrantów z rodzinami, z Nowego Sącza i województwa - grupa pocztowców.

Ai visitatori di altre nazionalità e ad un gruppo di pellegrini italiani

Desidero salutare anche i visitatori di altre nazionalità, a tutti augurando una sosta romana proficua per la fede e per la cultura.

L’ultimo saluto, come di consueto, ai pellegrini italiani, in special modo ai giovani. So che è terminato l’anno scolastico, spero con buoni risultati; ma penso anche agli universitari, che sono nel pieno degli esami. Auguro loro una buona riuscita.

A tutti la mia Benedizione.

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