On February 11, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes and also the World Day of the Sick, our eyes are drawn to a young girl whose faith and persistence led to a renewed devotion to Our Lady, healer of the sick. In appearing to Bernadette, Our Lady confirmed what we sometimes find hard to believe: her words, like the Word itself, are often given to the poor and lowly and, in this case, to a simple and sickly country girl. Pope Francis says in his message this year for the World Day of the Sick that, by doing so, Mary emphasizes that,

“…every person is, and always remains, a human being, and is to be treated as such.”  He then reminds us that “The sick and those who are disabled, even severely, have their own inalienable dignity and mission in life.”

This is worth repeating: the sick and disabled have their own dignity AND their own mission.

We know that St Thérèse of Lisieux longed to be a missionary, but illness prevented her from following that path. Instead, she responded with her own “Fiat!” spending the rest of her short life praying for the missions. The chronically sick, the frail elderly and people with disabilities often inspire us not only by demonstrating acceptance and fortitude in bearing their hardship and suffering, but often by witnessing to joy and optimism through their faith-filled approach to life. Many of them take on the same role as St Thérèse in praying for the Church and its mission, and thereby developing their own mission in life and in the Church. The Pope recognizes and encourages these efforts, noting that it is “…a major way in which a culture of life will grow and develop….”

Pope Francis also asks that the World Day of the Sick should

“…inspire renewed efforts to defend the integrity and dignity of persons, not least through a correct approach to bioethical issues, the protection of the vulnerable and the protection of the environment.”

Realizing that this is essential for the flourishing of every human being, Catholic teaching in bioethics makes great efforts to promote that stance, and to take “a correct approach.”

This means that the full spectrum of life must be protected and defended from conception until natural death, as well as in every area of our physical, mental and spiritual health. Our teaching recognizes the essential goodness of the human person and of the human body. Whether it concerns natural family planning, contraception, IVF, radical physical alterations in treatment regarding sexual re-assignment surgery, organ donation, end-of-life issues or any other matter, it should always have the best interests of the human person at heart.

This is sometimes misunderstood. Some of our bioethical teaching is perceived as being difficult to understand and to follow, and it is true that it is not always easy to appreciate its nuances. Moral theologians and bioethicists are, therefore, challenged to make these teachings clear and accessible, and this is doubly difficult these days when even a hint that some sacrifice or restraint might be called for is often rejected as unacceptable and pointless. It is here, however, that the sick can and do witness to the fact that sacrifice can be positive.

In our efforts to promote a culture of life, we could develop a type of “reciprocity of missions.” The sick would make it part of their mission to pray for all those working in health care, that they might have the faith and wisdom to witness to the culture of life in caring for their patients. This mission stems from the acceptance of their own suffering, turned to good purpose—truly “offering it up” to a good end, as St Thérèse and so many good people have done over the years. Health care workers, in turn, would see their mission as striving to achieve the best care possible for the sick, which would include praying for them and recognizing their spiritual needs.

The World Day of the Sick gives us pause to reflect on the meaning of sickness and health, acceptance and sacrifice. It is an opportunity to pray for the sick, for all health care workers and the many family members who also sacrifice by giving of themselves, sometimes every day, for a needy loved one. It is an opportunity to see that “mission” takes many forms, and that human dignity is, as Pope Francis reminds us, inalienable.

Dr Moira McQueen