With a Loving Heart, Seeing the Face of Christ in the Sick

Pilgrims pray before the relics of St. Bernadette Soubirous at the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. (CNS photo/Emanuela De Meo, Catholic Press Photo)

It is very appropriate that we celebrate World Day of the Sick today on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.  From the very beginning, when young Saint Bernadette Soubirous reported the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the grotto of Massabielle, Lourdes has been known for cures that defy medical explanation.  Since that time in 1858, people have flocked to this tiny village amid the Pyrenees, with about six million pilgrims visiting last year.  Some go seeking a physical cure, but many more go for the certainty of spiritual comfort and healing.

Today the Church reflects upon the sacredness of life of those who suffer from illness or infirmity.  In imitation of the love, compassion and mercy of Christ, Pope Francis calls us to give of ourselves fully in solidarity with the sick and those who provide them with care (Message for World Day of the Sick 2014).  Jesus did this throughout his ministry, culminating in his giving us the medicine of immortality – the Eucharist – and the ultimate triumph over pain, suffering and death on the Cross.

We are all in need of healing, but the Gospel message of Lourdes goes far beyond physical cures to a healing of the heart, where Jesus most wants to touch all of us.  There are many kinds of disease and ailments, but the gravest malady is spiritual.  As Pope Benedict XVI observed, “Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God” (Deus caritas est, 31), and it is the cause of a profound spiritual blindness in those who are afflicted.  Unable to perceive truth in the resulting darkness, often they do not even realize they are blind, much less recognize the needs of others (cf. John 9:40).

“How blind man is when he refuses to open his heart to the light of faith!” said Bernadette, who lived in a time of aggressive secularism held by intellectual elites who limited themselves to worldly concerns and denied the existence of transcendent truth.  In the eyes of the learned, Bernadette was ignorant.  Indeed, she had not had much education, just some catechism lessons to prepare for her First Communion – her family was much too poor to afford schooling and she was often sickly and physically weak.  But because of her simple modest faith, an innocent and humble love for the Lord, the lowly Bernadette saw with her heart, which allowed her to see what skeptics could not:  the Blessed Mother of our Lord who is a reflection of his goodness and, in her maternal love for us, is our life, our sweetness and our hope.

This is how God has worked throughout history.  He chooses the weak and the lowly to bring healing to the world (1 Corinthians 1:26-29; cf. Matthew 11:25).  Thus, part of the message of Lourdes is also the example of Bernadette – that we too should be meek, humble, loving and pure of heart so that we can see the things of God, including perceiving in our “sick brother or sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying and rising, achieved the salvation of mankind” (Message for the First World Day of the Sick (1993)).

We cannot be true followers of Christ unless we have such eyes of faith, cured of any spiritual blindness.  “The Christian’s program – the program of the Good Samaritan, the program of Jesus – is ‘a heart which sees.’ This heart sees where love is needed and acts accordingly” (Deus caritas est, 31).

In the presence of Our Lady of Lourdes who smiles upon us, the heart sees that our love and acts of compassion are needed especially for those who are ill and infirm, in body or spirit.  As we observe this special day, remembering that Mary and Jesus are always there for us, let us confirm our faith and strive to be there for others who are in need.