By ARCHBISHOP GREGORY J. HARTMAYER, OFM Conv. | Published February 16, 2022 | En Español
The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes (Feb. 11) is designated as World Day of Prayer for the Sick. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the institution of the day of prayer.
In his letter marking the institution, St. John Paul II spoke of it as “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering for the good of the Church, and reminding us to see in our sick brother and sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying, and rising, achieved the salvation of mankind.”
How appropriate that this day is observed on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. It was in Lourdes that Our Lady appeared to St. Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. St. Bernadette reported seeing a young woman dressed in white, with a rosary in her hand, and a yellow rose on each foot.
In one of the early apparitions, the “lady in white” instructed Bernadette to go to a nearby spring, drink from it and wash herself in it. Not long after that, a number of people who bathed in that same water reported remarkable cures. Ever since then, millions of pilgrims have traveled to Lourdes in hope of healing, both physical and spiritual. It is a place of consolation and peace, and while physical healings may not always occur, the gift of acceptance of one’s sufferings in union with Christ’s is achieved by all who visit there.
It is not always easy to understand why suffering and illness must be a part of our lives. At times, we might be tempted to think that God is punishing us, or that he has withdrawn his love from us. We might even think that he has deserted us completely or that we no longer matter to him. Suffering and illness are, in fact, for many people a great challenge to their faith. At such times, it might be helpful to remember that another word for faith is trust. Jesus himself had to live by trust and for him it was not always easy. We will certainly also experience great difficulty at times entrusting ourselves to God’s love and care.
In St. Mark’s Gospel, the last words of Jesus as he dies on the cross are, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus experienced the seeming absence of God in his life at the time when, more than ever before, he needed the love and support of his heavenly Father. For many of us, the words of Jesus might well be words we find on our own lips or rising in our own hearts in times of great distress.
The Gospel of St. Luke offers a different perspective as the last words of Jesus are, “Father, into your hands I entrust my spirit.” This is a very moving prayer of trust and of hope. These two Gospel accounts are not so much contradictory as complementary. Jesus experienced all the pain and the sense of abandonment which so many people feel in moments of great crisis. And yet, at the deepest level, this did not destroy his trust in God but led him to call on it more completely.
It is possible for us to be in great distress, to experience great suffering and to feel as if there is no way forward and yet, at the same time, to entrust ourselves in hope to God, believing that no matter what comes we are being held in his loving care.
Where does such faith and trust come from? How can we allow it to grow within us? Faith is a gift of God. He can mold and shape our hearts and transform our lack of faith into a strong and sustaining faith–but we must ask him to do this for us and allow him to work within us.
God never forces himself upon us but, equally, God never walks away from us. The molding and shaping of our hearts may itself at times be a difficult and challenging experience. We have to let go of so much if we wish to be ready to receive the peace that only the Lord can give. Sometimes it is our own human frailty and the burden of pain and illness which bring us to the point where we recognize that it is only in God, rather than in anything else, that we can find our rest.
The supreme witness
In his message for this year’s World Day of Prayer for the Sick, Pope Francis wrote: “The supreme witness of the Father’s merciful love for the sick is his only-begotten Son. How often do the Gospels relate Jesus’ encounters with people suffering from various diseases! 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.” We do well to ask ourselves why Jesus showed such great concern for the sick, so much so that he made it paramount in the mission of the apostles, who were sent by the Master to proclaim the Gospel and to heal the sick.”
In the Letter of St. James, we are told: “Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up; and if they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.” These words are the foundation of the sacrament of the sick.
As the priest anoints the forehead he prays: “Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit.” And then he anoints the hands: May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
The sacrament is a privileged way to open ourselves to this deep peace and hope which God wishes to give us. Sometimes that peace and hope will come through physical or emotional healing. Sometimes it will come from a deep spiritual awakening. It may happen spectacularly or very quietly and in a hidden way. We may not even be aware of what God is doing within us as we receive the grace of the sacrament. And yet, we know that God is always true to his promises and his promise is that the sacrament of anointing, for those who are seriously ill, will bring the healing and the hope that we most need, even if this is not clear to us.
It is my prayer that all those who are sick may find consolation and peace in their suffering and know that Jesus is always with them. May they unite their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ for “the good of the Church.” In them, we see the face of Christ.
We entrust all of the sick to maternal care and intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes.
“O ever Immaculate Virgin, Mother of Mercy, you are the refuge of sinners and the comfort of the afflicted. Look with mercy on us. By appearing in the Grotto of Lourdes you gave the world hope. Your Son has healed many, thanks to your compassionate intercession. Therefore, we come humbly before you to ask for your motherly intercession for all who are sick in body, mind and spirit. Holy Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of death. Amen.