Saint John Paul II began his momentous encyclical on the God-given dignity of all human life by noting, “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message” (Evangelium Vitae, 1). Warning of growing threats to human life at its beginning and last stages through legalized abortion and euthanasia, with the term “quality of life” justifying the taking of another life, the Pope wrote that today’s Christians must confront this culture of death by building a civilization of love embodied by Jesus and his Gospel (Id., 26-28).
Those words are especially prophetic today as we see a movement all over the country to legalize assisted suicide. Such laws, if enacted, would in effect decide whose lives are worth living, and whose are deemed too inconvenient or burdensome to continue.
At a time when “the culture of death” encroaches closer to our community, Pope Francis’ Message for the 2015 World Day of the Sick is also one we need to hear. Our Holy Father exhorts us to seek the grace of “wisdom of the heart” so that we might be sensitive to those who are burdened by illness and see in them the image of God. Our brothers and sisters who are sick and suffering will feel more loved and comforted thanks to our closeness and affection, he says, adding, “How great a lie, on the other hand, lurks behind certain phrases which so insist on the importance of ‘quality of life’ that they make people think that lives affected by grave illness are not worth living!”
Pope Francis has often noted that sometimes the sick and elderly can be “hidden exiles” in their own homes, too often forgotten or neglected. In our busy, hectic lives, we can get caught up in other things, forgetting about being responsible for others. Yet, through our presence at the side of those who suffer illness, we can bring them Christ’s love. “Time spent with the sick is holy time. It is a way of praising God who conforms us to the image of his Son,” the Pope says.
Illness and suffering are an unavoidable part of the human condition. What distinguishes the Christian in all of this is that we can put these otherwise unfathomable mysteries into perspective. It is part of the calling of Christ to see in all of the pains and sorrows, frustrations and unfulfilled expectations of life something of the way of the Cross.
The Cross is something many would rather avoid. But again, there is no escape from the reality of pain and eventual death. The only question is whether we go through it with Jesus or without him. Saint John Paul II reminds us that it is precisely in the Cross of Jesus, who was close to every form of human suffering throughout his life, that human suffering has “entered into a completely new dimension and a new order: it has been linked to love” (Salvifici Doloris, 18). And by Christ’s love on the Cross, we are saved. Sickness, suffering and death need not have the last word. The season of Lent, which is fast approaching, is a reminder of this truth.
The Cross of Jesus, which for some is a stumbling block or thought to be foolishness (cf. 1 Cor 1:18, 23), is really “the supreme act of God’s solidarity with us, completely free and abounding in mercy,” Pope Francis tells us in his message. Moreover, “this response of love to the drama of human pain, especially innocent suffering, remains forever impressed on the body of the Risen Christ.”
What is the body of the Risen Christ in the world today? The Church. So if we are to call ourselves his disciples, we must be united to the suffering of others. Like Jesus, we must go and offer love and comfort to the sick and dying. Such love begins to mirror in this life the glory of the love of God that is life eternal.
Through a wisdom of heart, we know that Jesus’ Gospel of life and love brings meaning to the mystery of sickness, suffering and death, and real quality of life. Echoing Saint John Paul’s call to transform our hearts and our world from a culture of death to a civilization of love, let us join in Pope Francis’ prayer, “Grant, through our service of our suffering neighbors, and through the experience of suffering itself, we may receive and cultivate true wisdom of heart.”