Sickness is always an unwelcome guest in the “home” of our bodies.  Whether its visit is brief or long, expected or unanticipated, recognized or subtle, sickness’ knock on the door is one that no one wants to answer.  Try as one may to keep it out, sickness eventually finds its way in and --- like an obnoxious houseguest --- takes over every room, leaving its hosts to wonder if it will ever leave.  The analogy here, although not very poetic, makes the point for which it is intended.

The past two years have acquainted the entire world with “sickness” in the form of the coronavirus pandemic that just does not seem to be in any hurry to leave us as it morphs and changes into highly transmissible variants with new names and potentially dangerous symptoms. Hundreds of millions of cases have been reported worldwide claiming five to six million lives so far, statistics that have shaken the world’s population to its core, turning life as we know it on its head. Will this “unwelcome guest” ever leave? Will life ever return to “some kind of normal?”

Those who are elderly or who suffer from other sicknesses, compromised immune systems or comorbidities are especially vulnerable to the pandemic, making it all the more difficult to treat and control. Vaccines and other therapeutics have been developed and are available to help create some resistance to the coronavirus disease, keeping some --- although not all --- of its victims out of increasingly overwhelmed and overburdened emergency rooms, hospitals and intensive care units.  In the meantime, regular and widespread testing, wearing masks, practicing social distancing and good hygiene, proper ventilation and sanitation of indoor spaces have become regular means to keep this recent, dangerous sickness at bay as much as possible, the “new normal,” at least for now.

These circumstances have given the annual “World Day of the Sick” added renewed meaning and special urgency in this, its thirtieth year.

Awareness of sicknesses of mind and body, however, is not uniquely occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic that we currently face.  Humanity has faced the reality of sickness and disease from the beginning of time as part of the human condition.  In his 1993 message introducing the first “World Day of the Sick,” Pope St. John Paul II, himself afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease wrote:

The Christian community has always paid particular attention to the sick and the world of suffering in its multiple manifestations. In the wake of such a long tradition, the universal Church, with a renewed spirit of service, is preparing to celebrate the first World Day of the Sick as a special occasion for growth, with an attitude of listening, reflection, and effective commitment in the face of the great mystery of pain and illness. This day, which, beginning in February 1993, will be celebrated every year on the commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes, for all believers seeks to be "a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one's suffering for the good of the Church and of reminding everyone to see in his sick brother or sister the face of Christ who, by suffering, dying and rising, achieved the salvation of mankind" (Letter Instituting the World Day of the Sick, 13 May 1992, n. 3).

The day seeks, moreover, to involve all people of good will. Indeed, the basic questions posed by the reality of suffering and the appeal to bring both physical and spiritual relief to the sick do not concern believers alone, but challenge all mankind, marked by the limitations of the mortal condition.

Every Pope since that time has published a message addressing the reality of human sickness and the importance of showing love and compassion to those afflicted by sickness and disease.

In his annual message for “World Day of the Sick” this year, Pope Francis wrote:

Thirty years ago, Saint John Paul II instituted the “World Day of the Sick” to encourage the people of God, Catholic health institutions and civil society to be increasingly attentive to the sick and to those who care for them.

We are grateful to the Lord for the progress made over the years in the particular Churches worldwide. Many advances have been made, yet there is still a long way to go in ensuring that all the sick, also those living in places and situations of great poverty and marginalization, receive the health care they need, as well as the pastoral care that can help them experience their sickness in union with the crucified and risen Christ. May the Thirtieth “World Day of the Sick: … help us grow in closeness and service to the sick and to their families.

In the past thirty years, pastoral health care has also seen its indispensable service increasingly recognized. If the worst discrimination suffered by the poor --- including the sick, who are poor in health --- is the lack of spiritual attention, we cannot fail to offer them God’s closeness, his blessing and his word, as well as the celebration of the sacraments and the opportunity for a journey of growth and maturation in faith.  In this regard, I would like to remind everyone that closeness to the sick and their pastoral care is not only the task of certain specifically designated ministers; visiting the sick is an invitation that Christ addresses to all his disciples. How many sick and elderly people are living at home and waiting for a visit! The ministry of consolation is a task for every baptized person, mindful of the word of Jesus: “I was sick and you visited me (Matthew 25:36).”

Dear brothers and sisters, to the intercession of Mary, Health of the Infirm, I entrust all the sick and their families. United with Christ, who bears the pain of the world, may they find meaning, consolation and trust. I pray for healthcare workers everywhere, that, rich in mercy, they may offer patients, together with suitable care, their fraternal closeness.

I know personally what it means to confront sickness and the impact it can have on one’s life.  For all of us in The Diocese of Trenton, let’s use the “World Day of the Sick” this year to be mindful of the sick and suffering among us: those in hospitals and nursing homes, especially those receiving palliative or hospice care; those at home, whether alone or with families; those who bear the burden of sickness or disease as they carry on their daily lives each day; those who are disabled and physically impeded; those who struggle with mental or emotional illness; and this year, in particular, those who suffer the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “World Day of the Sick” is “their day” and gives us the opportunity to pray for them as, in the words of Pope Francis, they “touch the suffering flesh of Christ.” They need our prayers, our encouragement and support, our compassion and comfort and merciful love. At the same time, let’s us also remember all those caretakers and caregivers in all the many ways they minister to the sick and suffering.  This is “their day,” too, and they deserve our support and heartfelt thanks.

As Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, I invite you to join me in this prayer published by the Catholic Health Association:

Hear our prayer, O God, and heal the many illnesses that afflict us in body, mind and soul. Bring comfort to those who suffer. Bring consolation to those who despair. Bring strength to those of us who walk with the sick. Bring hope to all for whom the path to healing is long or may not end. Let us never forget your special care for the sick, that they may also know they are precious and loved. Amen.

O Mary, Mother of Mercy and Health of the Sick, pray for us!