February 29, 2008

Faith and Family / Sean Gallagher

See the sick and caregivers as Christ

Sean GallagherEarlier this month, the archdiocese observed a novena of prayer that led up to the World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11.

It was inspired, in part, by the fact that Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer affecting the lymphatic system.

However, prayer for all who are sick and suffering was also encouraged during the nine-day novena.

Praying for the sick is certainly an important part of Catholic spirituality.

But giving physical care to those who are ill is also a key aspect of what it means to be Catholic. Indeed, it can be understood to fit within the corporal work of mercy of visiting the sick.

Giving a sick loved one constant attention over the course of his or her illness is a real act of love. But it is also hard work.

My wife, Cindy, recently had the flu. At the same time, I battled an intestinal virus. Thankfully, a kind neighbor lady cared for our two oldest sons during the day—another act of real love—when our illnesses were at their worst.

But almost as soon as my wife, who is a registered nurse, was recovering from her illness, our youngest son, Victor, and I caught her flu. For nearly a week, my wife wasn’t able to leave our home as she was still contagious and was caring for others in the house.

At times, impatience got the best of her because she had to wipe one runny nose after another, keep the medicine flowing and respond to a seemingly endless litany of demands from our boys—and, ahem—me.

But I’m sure that if I were in her position, I would have blown my stack more quickly and more often.

By and large, though, she was a real example to me of Christ, who said, “I have come to serve and not to be served” (Mt 20:28).

But if, through the eyes of faith, we can see our caregivers as a figure of Christ, it is also possible for them to see the ailing in the same way.

Some 1,500 years ago, St. Benedict wrote to his fellow monks that “care of the sick must rank above and before all else, so that they may truly be served as Christ, for he said: ‘I was sick and you visited me’ and ‘What you did for one of these least brothers you did for me’ ” (Rule of St. Benedict, 36:1-3, quoting Mt 25:36).

Putting love into action to care for the sick is hard. Caregivers need God’s grace to get them through the day many times.

They also need a little cooperation and understanding from those they are caring for as St. Benedict wisely pointed out: “Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress their brothers who serve them” (Rule of St. Benedict, 36:4).

Whether we who are sick seek to find the face of Christ in our caregivers or our caregivers treat we who are sick as Christ, this is something that can have nothing but a positive impact upon our families.

There is something bigger at stake here. What St. Benedict wrote so long ago is a radical statement in our own day when those who are terminally ill, far from being seen as Christ in disguise, are viewed by many in our society as dead weight that needs to be cast off.

In the view of a growing number of people, those who are terminally ill have not so much a “right to die,” but an obligation to do so.

Real love is shown by caring for the sick, not in actively hastening their death. †

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