With so much attention being paid to the Covid-19 epidemic and the constant barrage of secular media coverage of those suffering due to that particular illness, I thought it would be a good time to reflect a little bit on the Christian view of illness, so we understand how it fits into our life in Christ. This is especially timely as we are approaching the Church’s world day of prayer for the sick on February 11th. (That’s the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, famous for the countless healing miracles since the 19th century and still occurring today, which occurred through Our Lady’s intercession at the famous shrine in France).
I’ll talk about illness in general in this column and in a future column address the sacrament of the sick. This material is taken mostly from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in its section on the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. That’s paragraphs 1500 and following. (The Catechism text is italicized, the rest is my commentary).
Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.
Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.
These are very profound paragraphs. They remind us that, even though God did not create illness (it is a result of the sin of mankind that has infected the whole human race, since the time of Adam and Eve), still, God can bring good out of the resultant suffering. Part of that good is that serious illness can powerfully remind us that we are dependent on God for health, healing and life. Without illness, we tend to think we don’t need God, which is a very spiritually dangerous belief. Illness can also put life in perspective, helping us to see what is important – our family relationships, our ability to pray, and so on – and just how much of what we focus on when we are
healthy is trivial and unimportant.
Christ’s compassion toward the sick and his many healings of every kind of infirmity are a resplendent sign that “God has visited his people” and that the Kingdom of God is close at hand. Jesus has the power not only to heal, but also to forgive sins; he has come to heal the whole man, soul and body [my emphasis added]; he is the physician the sick have need of. His compassion toward all who suffer goes so far that he identifies himself with them: “I was sick and you visited me.” His preferential love for the sick has not ceased through the centuries to draw the very special attention of Christians toward all those who suffer in body and soul. It is the source of tireless efforts to comfort them.
Again, very profound. There are countless accounts in the Gospels of Jesus healing the sick, sometimes described in detail and sometimes emphasizing the great number who came to Him. It’s clear that one of the primary means of showing compassion that Our Lord visited upon His people was this physical healing. At the same time, the evangelists (Gospel writers) make very clear that the Lord’s first priority is to heal the soul through the forgiveness of sins. This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the famous story of the paralytic (cf. Mark 2), whose friends cut a hole in the roof where Jesus is visiting and lower him down. The very first thing He says to this unfortunate man is, “My son, yours sins are forgiven…But that you may know the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, ‘I say to you, rise, take up your mat and go home.’” In other words, the healing of the terrible disease of paralysis is a sign of the deeper healing of the soul in forgiving his sins.
I’d like to emphasize that point in conjunction with the sacrament of the sick. I have been a priest for a long time now, and so have administered the anointing countless times for many, many people facing serious illnesses and even imminent death. In many of these cases, the recipient was unable to speak or think clearly due to illness, but not in all. And in only a tiny fraction of those cases did the recipient seek to make a confession. (The two sacraments are often administered together). That tells me that many of the faithful are not quite “getting” the message of Christ: that certainly the healing of the body is important, but that we should be primarily
concerned with the healing of the soul.
St. Matthew records these words of Our Lord: “Do not fear those who kill the body, but can not kill the soul; rather fear him (that is, the Devil) who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” [10.28] A stark reminder that, even though the Church works tirelessly for the health of the sick, the real victory is not just medical healing, but the Lord’s victory over sin and death through His triumphant Resurrection. (See para. 1505).