I am a retired GP, and currently a candidate for the Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Parramatta. As I prepare myself for ordained ministry sometime in the future, I would like to offer some reflections on the World Day of the Sick, which will be held on Thursday 11 February 2021, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
In the second reading for the Word of God Sunday, Paul (1 Cor. 9:16-19, 22-23) speaks of the “duty which has been laid on me” (1 Cor. 9:16) to preach and proclaim the Gospel. This calling, or vocation to preach and proclaim the Gospel may be understood as being central to the identity of the deacon, who has become a herald of the Gospel through ordination. We find this in the Rite of Ordination for the Deacon, where, after he is ordained, he is handed the Book of the Gospel by the Bishop with the words, “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you have become. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” In other words, “believe, teach and practice” lie at the core of the identity of the deacon as a herald of the Gospel.
In my journey into the diaconate from a career in palliative care general practice, a central consideration that inspired me was to focus my diaconal ministry on the formation of Catholic health care professionals. In this respect, I will reflect on the message of Pope Francis for the 2021 World Day of the Sick in the light of the readings for the Word of God Sunday that we have just celebrated.
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It is noteworthy that Pope Francis begins his message for the XXIX World Day of the Sick by reminding us all to “devote special attention to the sick and to those who provide them with assistance and care both in healthcare institutions and within families and communities.” The Pope then goes on to criticise “the hypocrisy of those who fail to practise what they preach” (Mt. 23:1-12). He calls us not to allow our faith to become reduced to empty words, leading to hypocrisy. This is both a call and a challenge to the deacon, who is called to be a herald of the Gospel, to believe what he reads, teach what he believes, and practise what he teaches.
In other words, the Pope is calling the deacon, and through the ministry of the deacon, to call others to believe – so that they may come to faith, teach – so that the authentic faith may be passed on to others, and ‘practise what you teach,’ – so that the witness of the deacon as herald of the Gospel may result in a ministry of integrity, free from being undermined by hypocrisy. The Pope then goes on to invite us to follow Jesus, asking us “to respond in a way completely contrary to such hypocrisy. He asks us to stop and listen, to establish a direct and personal relationship with others, to feel empathy and compassion, and to let their suffering become our own as we seek to serve them (cf. Lk. 10:30-35).”
It is pertinent then, to remember that caring for the sick can never be reduced to matters of technical expertise, important and critical though expertise and skills may be from time to time. Indeed, caring for the sick within the health care ministry of the Church has sacramental, pastoral and professional dimensions. The sacramental dimension of the Church’s health care ministry brings Jesus the healer and saviour to the sick, whether in the Eucharist, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation or the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The pastoral dimension brings the friendship and presence of Jesus to the sick through the visitations of pastoral ministers, family and friends. Finally, the professional dimension brings Jesus to the sick through our health care professionals, using their expertise and skills to bring about healing for their patients.
It is instructive then, to return to the readings for last Sunday, the Word of God Sunday, to consider some of the richness of the readings of the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B) in relation to the World Day of the Sick.
The first reading sees Job express a real, deeply personal and despairing lament for his situation. He makes no attempt to lessen his experience of darkness, lamenting that his life “is but a breath, and that my eyes will never again see joy.” (Job 7:7) There is much despair expressed by Job, but is it punishment for his ‘sins’? The lesson for us today is that not all despair and suffering is ‘sinful’ – and while I will not go into the mental health issues involved in Job’s expression of despair, the authenticity of the expression of his experience, together with the consonance between his experience and his life circumstances give us pause before labelling his experience as a ‘mental health issue.’
In the Gospel reading, we find Jesus is the healer to whom all who were sick and those who were possessed by devils were brought to him for healing and liberation. Jesus initially reaches out to Simon’s mother in law, ‘helping her up,’ a phrase which reminiscent of the resurrection. Being ‘raised up,’ she then begins to serve them – the word ‘serve’ (diakoneo) being used to describe the ministry of a Christian vocation, which is what the diaconate is.
Healing is for service, outreach to others and proclamation of the Good News of Jesus, the healer and liberator from the forces of evil. In this respect, Jesus went off to a lonely place to pray after ministering to the sick. Hence, for the disciple who is called to ministry, it is crucial that ministry is founded on a life of prayer – where we can be alone with God, who has called us to preach the Good News of the Kingdom. The healing ministry of the disciple can then be seen as the outcome of the call to ministry (or service – diakoneo). In this way, the vocation of the deacon, like that of Jesus, is to preach the Gospel through believing what he reads, teaching what he believes and practising what he teaches. This vocation is grounded in his identity as a herald of the Gospel, called to preach the Good News of Jesus, who has come that we may have life, and have it to the full (Jn. 10:10).
Dr Michael Tan is a candidate to the Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Parramatta.