Bishop Andrew Cozzens
World Day of the Sick 2019
“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 as touched it were healed.”
When we see Gospel passages like today, we realize that Jesus’ whole mission is one of healing. Pope Benedict once said that we could describe the mission of Jesus in terms of healing. Today we see in the Gospel Jesus at the high point of His ministry. We have been reading actually from this 6th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus is attracting very large crowds, mainly because of His healing power. Many people have already been healed by Him, and the word is out that, if you’re sick and you come to Jesus – and even if you just touch the tassel of his cloak – you can be healed. And everyone who touched Him was healed is what the Gospel says. We, of course, know that the high point of Jesus’ ministry doesn’t last; it’s kind of a striking thing. As Jesus continues His ministry and He continues to teach about what His real mission is, the crowds are going to get smaller and smaller, not bigger and bigger. And what we begin to realize in the midst of this is Jesus wants to bring a deeper healing than just physical healing, that the physical healings which Jesus does are signs of a deeper thing that Jesus wants to do in every person, and that deeper thing is, of course, the healing of sin, the healing of that which keeps us separated from God.
We heard that first reading from the Book of Genesis, the beautiful vision of God’s creation and how God creates everything good, and again we know the culmination of that creation is those who are made in God’s image. That’s us, who are made to live in communion with God, not just in this life but forever. And we know the story of the rupture of that communion that sin introduces, which also introduces into the world sickness and disease and death. All of these are the result of this separation from God. And so what you see Jesus begins to do is He begins to reveal the repair of communion that He wants to do. It often begins with a physical healing, but there’s something deeper that Jesus is after, which is the healing of that shame that we all carry because of our sin.
It’s so striking to me when you read the first chapter of Genesis. There it is, written thousands of years ago, and it’s the thing that every psychology book is still trying to deal with – still trying to deal with this reality that when we sin we want to hide, and the immediate reaction to evil entering is a rupture of communion and I am turning on myself. So what did Adam and Eve do with this sin? They hide. They hide from God and hide from each other – they are now ashamed. It’s the fundamental psychological reality that is at the root of every psychological problem, this turning in on ourself in shame that separates us from others and then makes us believe lies about ourselves, that in fact I am not worthy of love. And here you see how Jesus’ healing could help begin to repair that and how your work could help begin to repair that, those of you who are especially tasked with caring for the sick. Because when Jesus reaches out to touch someone, He wants not just that they would be physically healed, but that they would know they are not alone, that they would know who they are before Him, that they would come to know their dignity as a son or a daughter of God. And we know that Jesus desires to continue that healing mission in His Church.
The Church, in this way, is supposed to make present this love of Jesus, this love that heals and invites all into communion. The fulfillment of that is at the Eucharist, when in fact everything we do, and especially those of you who are charged in the caring of the sick, is meant to be showing people their dignity, that they are not alone, their value before God, which they can come to see if they seek renewal from that. You can be part of this healing that God wants to do.
Of course, God wants you to use all of your natural talents. He wants you to use your mind, all your studies, all that you’ve learned in nursing school or medical school, all those things. He wants us to learn to use those things to heal, but more importantly than the physical healing, He wants to repair the rupture of sin. And He might go back into the communion of love, which means He wants people to know that they’re loved, which is why even those who just visit the sick are, in fact, helping to heal them. This is, by the way, our theology of the Sacrament of the Sick. We believe that every time we give the Sacrament of the Sick God does the healing, and we pray that will be a physical healing, and sometimes God does heal physically through the Sacrament of the Sick, but more importantly He does a spiritual healing. He forgives sin and He restores communion to the Church, so that the person who receives that sacrament knows they are loved by God and that God is with them, which is what all of the sacraments want to do, to bring us deeper into that communion that heals us.
This is why your work becomes so important, even though many times you won’t get to explicitly share your faith in your service of the sick. Sometimes you will, if you’re a minister who is bringing communion or something like that or visiting the sick, but sometimes you won’t get to explicitly care for them, or explicitly witness to them. But you can still witness to them by the way you love them, and actually the charity in your heart can help to restore communion to them by convincing them of their dignity. They don’t have to be ashamed and they don’t have to hide, because in their vulnerability they can be loved. It’s actually one of the painful things about being sick is it makes us vulnerable, and it makes us deal with our own vulnerability and our own humanity, and that can be a profound moment for God’s love to enter in.
This is why it’s important especially for those of you who serve the sick that you pray for them. We see, of course, the power of prayer in the Scriptures. We know that it’s prayer that actually changes people’s hearts, and we know it’s the grace of God more than anything else that’s going to affect them, and that can be assisted by our prayers. And what a beautiful thing if you approach your work praying for those whom God invites you to care for in their sickness. You can be sure that, even if you never see it, God will be using you to bring about the deeper healing.
One of the ways that the saints always did this and helped themselves to approach the sick in prayer is that they always tried to imagine that the sick person they were caring for was Jesus. They always told themselves that. We see this in St. Teresa of Calcutta. People would say to her, “How can you touch that person who is there in the streets with a body filled with worms?” – a very difficult scene. And she would say, “Well, that’s Jesus. How can I not touch him?” Remember when Mother Teresa’s sisters first started to do work with AIDS patients and all the doctors said, “Well, you’re going to have to wear latex gloves whenever you touch the AIDS patients,” and she said, “Sorry, but we won’t do it. We won’t do it because it’s Jesus that we’re touching.” Of course, doctors have to wear gloves – I understand that. I’m saying it’s the model of how we approach the sick, as if it was Jesus.
St. Camillus de Lellis also used to always imagine this. In fact, sometimes as he was caring for the sick he would have such a profound experience of being close to Jesus that he would just cry, because he felt so close to Jesus in that moment. You see, the saints show us that we can take Jesus’ words literally. “When I was sick, you visited Me.” Jesus said, “Whatever you did to the least, you did to Me.” So whatever I do to the sick, Jesus counts it as having been done to Him. You see the great privilege for those of you who have this profession that you have, right? You get to work with Jesus every day. You get to be close to Him in the sick every day.
I want to just close by telling you one story that makes the point about this deeper healing that God always wants to do in the way we care for others. It’s an extreme story, but it makes the point, so that’s why I like it. It’s actually a story about a man who was on death row. His name was Kevin – it’s a true story. Kevin was a 22-year-old man, who was on death row awaiting his death in South Africa. Kevin had grown up Catholic and had even been an altar boy when he was a young person, but in his teenage years he drifted far from God and he committed a number of terrible crimes, which he was eventually arrested for and sentenced to death. While he was in prison, he was visited by a religious sister. It’s not that he was sick, except that he had a sickness in soul, but it’s another one of those corporal works of mercy, right? – visiting the imprisoned. This religious sister visited Kevin while he was in prison frequently, and through her counsel he was eventually drawn back to God. He went to confession and he experienced reconciliation with God, and the night before his death by hanging – he died by hanging – the night before his execution he wrote this letter to the sister who had visited him in prison:
“Yes, my dear mother in Christ, the hour has eventually come for me to depart from this sinful world. I will die with the name of Jesus on my lips and in His arms. I write this letter with tears of joy in my eyes, knowing that God is with me. I am indeed more than happy. I have found my God and my Savior in Him. It is inexplicable. Oh, sister, I have been so much unloved in my life, but I have at last experienced the love I longed for in the Lord through you. Tomorrow I go, as a child of God – the lost son returning home – saying for the last time, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I offer you my heart and my soul. Take me as I am.’” Do you see what happened to this young man as he experienced that deeper healing that only God can give, the healing of the rupture of sin? How do you experience it? “I have been so much unloved in my life, but at last I experienced the love I longed for in the Lord through you.” He experiences that love through a person visiting, and then coming to know that he was loved, he could come to bathe in God’s love, and he experienced that love so profoundly in God for him that he could even face death with joy. Let’s pray again, as God used that religious sister to repair this rupture in the heart of Kevin, He might use us to repair the rupture in all those we visit who are sick.