This past Saturday, March 7, I concelebrated with Bishop Finn and Archbishop Keleher the 19th annual Mass for the Sick, sponsored by the Knights and Dames of Malta.
Those with serious illnesses or the infirmities from advanced age, accompanied by family and friends, from both sides of State Line Road came to receive the anointing of the sick and to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist.
I was reminded of my visit this past October to Lourdes. At Lourdes, the sick and the suffering are the guests of honor. Everything is designed to accommodate those in wheelchairs. At the beautiful candlelight rosary procession each evening, it is the sick that receive primacy in the procession.
The Knights and Dames of Malta trace their history back more than 900 years. Their first apostolate was a hospital in Jerusalem to care for pilgrims of any faith or race. With the many threats to Christian pilgrims, the Knights of Malta also took up the defense of pilgrims and the sick. Their mission today remains to care for the sick and suffering, as well as to defend the Catholic faith. Each year, the Knights and Dames of Malta from our area bring some of the sick to Lourdes, to pray for physical healing and a deepened faith.
The annual Mass for the Sick brings a touch of Lourdes to Kansas City. At the annual Mass, the sick are the guests of honor and everything is arranged for their comfort and benefit. After the Mass, there is a reception with refreshments. Before departing this annual event, each sick person has the opportunity to receive a bottle of Lourdes water.
In truth, the sick, suffering and disabled should be the honored and esteemed members of our church family throughout the year. Each year, this Mass is a moment for our local Catholic community to express our esteem and love for those in our area whom the crucified Lord is asking to be near him.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta had a special love and devotion to the sick, dying and poor because she understood that they had a special closeness to Jesus. Mother Teresa described the suffering of the poor as the kiss of Jesus, the embrace of the crucified one. One of her fellow Missionaries of Charity told Mother Teresa once that she wished Jesus would not kiss her so much.
Our natural inclination is to flee suffering, to avoid pain and discomfort at all costs. I have had very little personal experience with illness. I am not a very good patient. Even with something as common and short-term as the flu, I am an impatient patient.
In our spirituality, we believe that suffering embraced with faith and love has great power. One of the most effective forms of intercessory prayer is to offer our suffering for the spiritual welfare of another. Wise spiritual directors tell us that suffering is something that should never be wasted.
Our suffering and sickness can also be a powerful tool for evangelization. When we remain joyful even in the midst of suffering and adversity because of our realization that we are close to our crucified Lord, we give a beautiful and compelling witness of the power of our faith in Jesus.
A good friend of mine from the pro-life movement, Molly Kelly, suffered a brain aneurysm several years ago. She almost died and spent several months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
Molly was an extremely gifted and dynamic speaker. However, after her recovery, she still had some memory loss and a greatly reduced energy level. She could no longer continue her public speaking schedule. While she was convalescing in the hospital, her eldest son died unexpectedly. Molly seemed like a modern-day Job.
When I visited her at her Philadelphia home after she had been released from the rehabilitation center, she said that she wished none of this had happened. Molly said that she now understood what Jesus felt like when he was stripped and scourged. Molly said that she had been stripped of her health, her independence, her ministry and, most difficult of all, her son. Despite all of this adversity, Molly declared: “Bishop, you know what? I still have Jesus. I still have joy. I receive Jesus in the Eucharist almost every morning. I am able to go to an adoration chapel and pray. I still have Jesus! I still have joy!”
March 7, the date of the Mass for the Sick, was the feast for the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity. They were among the Christians martyred at Carthage in the year 203. We have a written eyewitness account of the martyrs of Carthage. The author described the scene of their martyrdom: “The day of the martyrs’ victory dawned. They marched from their cells into the amphitheater, as if into heaven, with cheerful looks and graceful bearing. If they trembled, it was for joy and not for fear.”
Perpetua was so caught up in an ecstatic experience of Our Lord’s love that she was unaware of her injuries sustained from being mauled by a wild animal, until her fellow Christians pointed out the severity of her wounds. Undeterred, Perpetua exhorted the others: “Stand firm in faith, love one another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.” Eighteen hundred years later the testimony of those early Christian martyrs continues to inspire.
During Lent, I encourage you to pray for and spend time with someone who is sick or disabled. Do what you can to ease their burden and to encourage them. Let us strive to make every day in Kansas, like it is in Lourdes, where the sick, suffering and disabled are the most treasured and revered members of our community.