February 11th, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and also World day of Prayer for the sick. Behind many hall-doors in our Parish and throughout the length and breadth of our Country, there are people who are sick; men and women, young and old; and more children than you might imagine. Some of them are confined to bed or to wheelchairs. Others, in spite of the limitations posed by their sickness, continue to go to work, do the shopping and play an active part in the life of their community. Each person’s story is unique. Many of them are stories of great courage.
These days, when we think about healthcare, we often think of new technology and new drugs. These are important, but healthcare is first and foremost a relationship of trust. When people are sick, they often discover in a new and more profound way, how much they depend on others. It is a useful lesson for all of us to learn, even if we would hope not to have to become sick in order to do so. Part of the story of every sick person is that relationship of trust with family members, friends, neighbours, carers, nurses, doctors, radiographers, physiotherapists, ambulance crews, priests and ministers of Holy Communion. It is a relationship in which love is expressed in generous service and care.
The Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, if you are familiar with the story of the apparitions of Our Lady to Bernadette at Lourdes, you might wonder what the connection with healing is. It is true that Bernadette was not a very healthy child and Mary seems to have been very kind to her. Bernadette was not treated as an ignorant child from a poor family might expect to be treated. Mary spoke to her as a child of God. This reminds us, as Pope Francis says in his Message for this World Day of the Sick, that every person is, and always remains, a human being, and is to be treated as such. The sick and those who are deeply vulnerable, have their own inalienable dignity and mission in life.
I think, when Mary is present, Jesus is never far away. When she asks his help on our behalf, He listens to her. We see this when Jesus responds to the request of His Mother, to bring some joy back into the lives of the young couple at the Wedding Feast in Cana. The message of Lourdes, essentially, is that God loves us and that he comes to find us wherever we are, but especially in our weakness and in our smallness. The challenge of Lourdes is that we allow ourselves to be small, to be vulnerable and to receive whatever gift God wants to give us. In the years after the apparitions, Bernadette devoted her own life to prayer and the care of the sick, as a Sister of Charity of Nevers. She was never very healthy herself and she died of tuberculosis while she was still quite young. It may seem surprising that Bernadette never took the opportunity to return to Lourdes seeking a cure for her illness.
I think she realised that she had already been healed. Through her encounter with Mary the Mother of Jesus, her whole life had been changed. One of the things I have often noticed in Lourdes is that the sick bring healing to the healthy, through their attitude of patience and prayerfulness. Those who come to Lourdes in the whole of their health discover a new humility, and go home with a fresh appreciation of the gift of life. This is the kind of conversion that Mary spoke about to Bernadette. Miracles of physical healing do happen at Lourdes, but they are the “icing on the cake”. The healing that comes from the love of God and of Mary His Mother touches people in many different ways.
It then overflows to touch the lives of others. It happens in a particular way in Lourdes, but it is not limited to Lourdes. It can happen in your home, in your hospital, or anywhere that people learn to see themselves and one another as the children of God.
I am very conscious that, in spite of all the good people who work in our healthcare system, the system itself is sick and in need of healing. Most people say that, once you get into the system, the care is very good, but getting in is a major problem. Many of you who work in hospitals and nursing homes, operate under enormous pressure and with facilities that don’t always measure up to what is required. When the sick have to wait too long for treatment and when those who care for the sick themselves become sick from stress, it is perfectly reasonable to feel angry. But it is important that we don’t take our anger out on one another. In this situation too, it is love that heals. Anger is an energy that, with wisdom and love, can be converted into a power which changes structures. As we pray for those who are sick, and for those who care for the sick, let us pray, especially today, for the wisdom to know how to bring that gift of healing to the healthcare system itself. Our local Hospital in Portlaoise, Kilkenny and indeed community hospitals are an essential service and an essential lifesaving one, which must never be compromised.
One of the most profound statements made by Jesus, was “I have come not for the healthy but for the sick”. Jesus had a powerful empathy and courageous outreach, to those who longed for healing. His love touched the wounds of the leper, his presence, brought Peace of Mind to many overwhelmed by anxiety and mental illness. God’s presence, to those who carry burdens physical, spiritual, emotional is truly one that can offer healing and transformation. All of us carry strengths and weakness, we are all marked by the vicissitudes of our life story. Empathy is the ability to reach out and connect with love to others. I pray in a special way for all who care for the sick. Carers in the family context who provide selfless and constant attention to vulnerable people are the true heroes in Irish society.
“Take my hand O Blessed Mother, Hold me firmly lest I fall, I am nervous when I am walking, and to thee I humbly call. Guide me over every crossing, Watch me when I am on my way, Let me know you are beside me, Listen to my frequent prayers. Bring me to my destination, safely every single day, Help me with my understanding, as the hours pass away. And when evening falls upon me, and I fear to be alone, Take my hand O Blessed Mother, and once again guide me home”.