In his 2023 message for the annual “World Day of the Sick,” our Holy Father Pope Francis reminds us that “iIllness is part of our human condition. Yet, if illness is experienced in isolation and abandonment, unaccompanied by care and compassion, it can become inhumane.” 

He explains, “On the thirty-first World Day of the Sick, as the whole Church journeys along the synodal path, I invite all of us to reflect on the fact that it is especially through the experience of vulnerability and illness that we can learn to walk together according to the style of God, which is closeness, compassion, and tenderness.”

Established in 1992 by Pope St. John Paul II, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, the “World Day of the Sick” is a day for the Church to acknowledge that “the sickness of a family member, a friend or a neighbor is a call to Christians to demonstrate true compassion, that gentle and persevering sharing in another’s pain.”

All of us know someone who has been seriously sick; some of us have been sick ourselves. Such experiences reveal the fragility of our human bodies, the impact that sickness has upon our outlook on life and the needs of the sick in our midst that only other caring people can meet.

Christians have always been encouraged by the compassion of the Lord Jesus toward the sick in the Gospels. The Church has carried on his ministry from its earliest days, offering healing, strengthening faith, inspiring hope, sharing love following his example. That ministry continues to be a work of mercy for all believers.

The sick share in the human suffering of the Lord Jesus, made so visible on the Cross. If he saw his suffering as a means to embrace and redeem our humanity, the Lord Jesus then invites us to view our sickness as a means of even closer union with him. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes: “… the sufferings of the present are nothing compared to the glory to be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

Sickness is another human occasion for us, in our sufferings, to deepen our faith. Even though our faith may not always heal our physical ailments, it makes them bearable if we see in moments of sickness the very presence of the Lord Jesus reaching out his hand, offering us in the crosses we bear purpose, comfort and peace. 

Those who are sick should pray to the Lord Jesus for these gifts in their suffering. Pope St. Paul VI wrote, “Know that you are not alone, separated, abandoned or useless. You have been called by Christ and are his living and transparent image” (Address to the Sick, Dec. 8, 1965).

Good health makes us aware of the blessings that we have. It is also an opportunity for us who are so blessed to accompany the sick in their journey through human life. A visit, a card or gift, a smile, a gentle hand, a shared tear and prayer enable us to be for them the loving presence of the Lord Jesus.

Those who care for the sick – doctors and nurses, staff and volunteers, priests and pastoral caregivers, families, and friends – have such an important and compassionate role to play. Whether believers or not, they are the Lord Jesus’ touch, his hands, his voice, his encouragement to hope. Thank God for them as they make every day, a “World Day of the Sick.” Pray for them, too.

Pope St. John Paul II asked that this special day of prayer be celebrated annually throughout the Church on February 11, the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Lourdes is the place in France where the Blessed Mother appeared to 14-year-old St. Bernadette Soubirous on Feb. 11, 1858. 

Since that date, thousands of miraculous healings have been reported by the sick who visited there. In doing this, Pope St. John Paul II placed all the sick in Mary’s maternal hands. May she bring our beloved sick and all who care for them closer to the heart of her Son.