Saturday, 13 February 2010

Evangelical "complicity": the sick person and the priest

The central celebration of the World Day for the Sick on Thursday of this week took place in the Vatican Basilica, and it was a part of a three day meeting of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, a meeting held to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of that Pontifical Council.

ZENIT have posted the text of Pope Benedict XVI's homily at Mass celebrated in the Vatican Basilica. Though I offer below two paragraphs that particularly caught my attention, do follow the link and read the whole homily.
The Gospels, in the synthetic descriptions of the brief but intense public life of Jesus, attest that he proclaimed the Word and healed the sick, sign par excellence of the closeness of the Kingdom of God. For example, Matthew writes: "And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people" (Matthew 4:23; cf 9:35). The Church, which has been entrusted with the task of prolonging the mission of Christ in space and time, cannot neglect these two essential works: evangelization and care of the sick in body and spirit. God, in fact, wishes to heal the whole man, and in the Gospel the healing of the body is a sign of a more profound healing, which is the remission of sins (cf Mark 2:1-12).
I was interested to see, in this opening paragraph of the Pope's homily, a link between the mission to care for the sick and evangelisation. Indeed, one can see the mission to care for the sick as a part of the process of evangelisation, particularly that "first stage" in evangelisation that is "presence in charity" (cf Pope Paul VI's Evangelii Nuntiandi and the Congregation for Clergy's General Directory for Catechesis). Clearly, prosleytism or the explicit seeking of conversion is quite inappropriate during the visiting of the sick, but such visiting can still be seen in a relation to the wider Church's mission of evangelisation.
From this text [the letter of St James], which contains the foundation and practice of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick, is extracted at the same time a vision of the role of the sick in the Church: An active role as it "provokes," so to speak, prayer made with faith. "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church." In this Year for Priests, I wish to stress the bond between the sick and priests, a sort of alliance, of evangelical "complicity". Both have a task: The sick person must "call" the presbyters, and they must respond, to bring upon the experience of sickness the presence and action of the Risen One and of his Spirit. And here we can see all the importance of the pastoral care of the sick, the value of which is truly incalculable, because of the immense good it does in the first place to the sick person and to the priest himself, but also to relatives, to friends, to the community and, through hidden and unknown ways, to the whole Church and to the world. In fact, when the Word of God speaks of healing, of salvation, of the health of the sick, it understands these concepts in an integral sense, never separating soul and body: A sick person cured by Christ's prayer, through the Church, is a joy on earth and in heaven, a first fruit of eternal life.

Implicit in this passage is, I think, a reference to the role of lay people in visiting the sick. The lay person can act as an intermediary, an opportunity for the sick person to invite the priest to visit and confer the sacrament of the sick, in a situation where the priest might not gain an access because of lack of time or because the person who is sick has been away from the Church for some time. The lay visitor can enable the "calling" by the person who is sick. Frank Duff wrote about the role of members of the Legion of Mary as extending the role of the priest, and this idea of the lay person as extending the reach of the priest has an application in the visiting of the sick. The spreading effects of the pastoral care for the sick person described in the penultimate sentence of this paragraph reflect the "presence of charity" element of evangelisation I referred to above.

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