Week Two of Lent: Reflection No. 3 – Our mission to care with Gospel compassion for the sick and the dying
Our first reflection on Ash Wednesday spoke of the importance of having listening hearts. We are called to have hearts that are open, and to listen with hearts of flesh to Jesus calling us in, and through the voices of the sick and the dying. Our second reflection last week focused on the call to follow Jesus in His way of humility as we care for the sick and the dying. Jesus calls, and we follow. In this reflection, we will consider our mission to care for the sick and dying with Gospel compassion, as Jesus sends us out on mission.
We find in Mk. 1:40-45 an example of Gospel Compassion (‘cum’ – ‘with’ passion’ – pain, suffering’). A leper comes to Jesus, begging for healing, cleansing and being reintegrated into the community from which he was an outcast. Jesus, moved with compassion, acts decisively. He stretches out his hand and touches the leper, an action with severe consequences in Jewish society. This touching of the leper would see Jesus crossing the boundary between clean and unclean, and in this way, Jesus himself would become an outcast. This was the price that Jesus paid for healing the leper. Although the leper was healed, made clean, and proclaimed the Good News of his healing fearlessly, Jesus would no longer be able to move around freely and openly (v.45). In this way, Jesus paid the price for healing the leper.
In this sense, even though he is the innocent one, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, Jesus takes on our sins in an intimate and personal way. These actions of Jesus would eventually lead to his betrayal, to walking along the Way of his Passion, and to his death on the Cross. In his Passion, Jesus reminds us of something central to Gospel compassion – there is no true Gospel compassion without suffering. To care for others is take on their sufferings in a certain sense – this is a suffering that we are called to embrace in obedience to the Father’s will, an obedience where Jesus calls us to take up our cross every day in following him. In this way, death and suffering are not denied or avoided. Instead, death and suffering are transformed in, and through the life, death and subsequent rising to new life in the resurrection of Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.
To care with Gospel compassion for the sick and the dying has a cost. In this respect, there is a ‘cheap’ compassion that is merely sentiment and emotion. This is ‘cheap compassion’ without substance, effective action or the need to take up our ‘cross’ in service of the sick and the dying. Cheap compassion is merely wishing the sick and the dying well. There is no action that seeks to heal, to comfort and to be instruments of peace to the dying. Cheap compassion is to argue for abortion and euthanasia without taking on the cost of caring for life from conception to its natural end. It is to take the ‘passion’ out of compassion, ignoring that the compassion of Jesus has real consequences in his Passion.
Gospel compassion, on the other hand, has costs – in terms of our time, our availability, our capacity to listen actively and compassionately to those we care for, and also in terms of grounding our care on a sound ethical and evidenced-basis. My next two reflections will focus on the nature of professionalism, ethics and evidence-based care, and the intimate relationships between professionalism and Gospel compassion.
Dr Michael Tan is a retired GP in formation for the Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Parramatta. He has just been appointed to the Executive of the Catholic Medical Association in NSW