September 10, 2021

The Face of Mercy / Daniel Conway

‘Tenderness’ and ‘closeness’ are at heart of caring for sick, elderly

(En Espanol)

Pope Francis had good reason to think about the importance of quality health care this past summer. He underwent colon surgery and spent several weeks in recovery—first at Rome’s Gemelli Hospital and afterward in his apartments at the Vatican.

On July 11, the Holy Father led the Angelus from a balcony of Gemelli Hospital. In his remarks, the pope said:

I would like to express my appreciation and my encouragement to the doctors and all the health care workers and staff of this and other hospitals. They work so hard! And let us pray for all the sick. Here there are some friends, sick children. … Why do children suffer? Why children suffer is a question that touches the heart. Accompany them with prayer and pray for all those who are sick, especially those in the most difficult conditions: may no one be left behind, may everyone receive the anointing of listening, closeness, tenderness and care. Let us ask this through the intercession of Mary, our Mother, Health of the Sick.

“Tenderness” and “closeness” are words that Pope Francis uses frequently to describe God’s love for us, and to encourage us to care for one another. He believes strongly that we have a solemn obligation to share the tender, merciful love of Christ with everyone, but especially with children, the sick, the elderly and all who are vulnerable.

For those who are missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, health care is not about science and technology—as important as these are for diagnosing and treating serious health problems. True healing is about love. It’s about caring for one another and giving comfort and hope to those who are ill. Health care workers must be skilled professionals, but they should also be human beings who care deeply about the mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health of their patients.

In his Angelus remarks, Pope Francis said:

In these days of being hospitalized, I have experienced once again how important good health care is, accessible to all, as it is in Italy and other countries. Free health care, that assures good service, accessible to everyone. This precious benefit must not be lost. It needs to be kept! And for this everyone needs to be committed, because it helps everyone and requires everyone’s contribution.

Universal access to health care is a matter of justice, as well as charity. The fact that quality medical care is costly does not mean that it should be available only to those who can afford it. The pope believes that caring for the sick is not a matter of economics. It is a vocation, he says, “to offer service, and service is always freely given.”

In his homily for the first World Day of Prayer for Grandparents and the Elderly on July 25, Pope Francis continued to reflect on the virtues of closeness and tenderness. “Older people are not leftovers to be discarded,” the pope said. On the contrary, “they continue to be precious nourishment for families, young people and communities.”

“Let us ask ourselves,” the pope said, “Have I visited my grandparents, my elderly relatives, the older people in my neighborhood? Have I listened to them? Have I spent time with them?” All of us have an obligation to care for the senior members of our families and communities. But this should not be seen as a burden. Rather, it is an opportunity to allow older people to inspire and encourage us with their life stories and their struggles over the years.

“I worry when I see a society full of people in constant motion,” the Holy Father said, “too caught up in their own affairs to have time for a glance, a greeting of a hug.” Closeness and tenderness are a two-way street. We need to give them away in order to get them back.

In a social media message on the World Day of Prayer for Grandparents and the Elderly, Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin wrote: A blessed Grandparents Day to all the women and men who share the tender love of God with the world’s children. Let’s pray especially for our Spiritual Grandfather, Pope Francis, as he continues to recover from surgery earlier this month.

(Daniel Conway is a member of The Criterion’s editorial committee.)

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