The ‘first therapy’ that must be offered to the sick, and to the world, is a dose of closeness, friendship and love, Pope Francis says in his message for the 32nd World Day of the Sick.
‘We came into the world because someone welcomed us; we were made for love; and we are called to communion and fraternity,’ he writes in his message for the annual observance on 11 February, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
A connection with other people ‘is what sustains us, above all at times of illness and vulnerability,’ the 87-year-old Pope writes. ‘It is also the first therapy that we must all adopt in order to heal the diseases of the society in which we live.’
The theme chosen for the 2024 observance is from the Book of Genesis: ‘It is not good that man should be alone.’ It is subtitled, ‘Healing the sick by healing relationships.’
We were created to be together, not alone.
In his message, released on 13 January, Pope Francis says Christians believe that ‘from the beginning, God, who is love, created us for communion and endowed us with an innate capacity to enter into relationship with others.’
‘We were created to be together, not alone,’ he writes. ‘Precisely because this project of communion is so deeply rooted in the human heart, we see the experience of abandonment and solitude as something frightening, painful and even inhuman.’
Pope Francis recalls the horrible pain of loneliness endured by those who were sick or in nursing homes during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and had no contact with their loved ones.
‘I share too in the pain, suffering and isolation felt by those who, because of war and its tragic consequences, are left without support and assistance,’ he says. ‘War is the most terrible of social diseases, and it takes its greatest toll on those who are most vulnerable.’
But even in rich countries at peace, he says, ‘old age and sickness are frequently experienced in solitude and, at times, even in abandonment.’
When a culture emphasises the individual, ‘exalts productivity at all costs, cultivates the myth of efficiency,’ he says, it ‘proves indifferent, even callous, when individuals no longer have the strength needed to keep pace.’
‘It then becomes a throwaway culture, in which “persons are no longer seen as a paramount value to be cared for and respected, especially when they are poor or disabled, ‘not yet useful’—like the unborn—or ‘no longer needed’—like the elderly,”’ he says, quoting his encyclical Fratelli Tutti: on Fraternity and Social Friendship.
The Pope says such thinking is reflected in ‘certain political decisions that are not focused on the dignity of the human person and his or her needs, and do not always promote the strategies and resources needed to ensure that every human being enjoys the fundamental right to health and access to healthcare.’
The first form of care needed in any illness is compassionate and loving closeness. To care for the sick thus means above all to care for their relationships, all of them.
But, he says, the human dignity of the sick and vulnerable also is abandoned when health care is seen simply as the provision of procedures and medication, rather than as caring for the whole person and involving the family in creating a network of support.
‘Brothers and sisters,’ he writes, ‘the first form of care needed in any illness is compassionate and loving closeness. To care for the sick thus means above all to care for their relationships, all of them: with God, with others—family members, friends, health care workers—with creation and with themselves.’
Addressing those who are ill, Pope Francis say, ‘Do not be ashamed of your longing for closeness and tenderness! Do not conceal it, and never think that you are a burden on others.’
And he calls on all Catholics, ‘with the love for one another that Christ the Lord bestows on us in prayer, especially in the Eucharist,’ to ‘tend to the wounds of solitude and isolation’ found particularly among the sick.
‘In this way,’ the Pope says, ‘we will cooperate in combating the culture of individualism, indifference and waste, and enable the growth of a culture of tenderness and compassion.’
People who are terminally ill and their families should always receive the care and assistance they need, Pope Francis says in a video message from the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, formerly known as the Apostleship of Prayer. Incurable, he says, does not mean ‘un-careable’.
The Pope’s prayer intention for the month of February is dedicated to people who are terminally ill, and in his video message, he says, ‘Even when little chance for a cure exists, every sick person has the right to medical, psychological, spiritual and human assistance.’
‘Sometimes they can’t talk; sometimes we think they don’t recognise us. But if we take them by the hand, we know they are relating with us,’ he says.
Incurable does not mean ‘un-careable’.
‘Healing is not always possible, but we can always care for the sick person, caress them,’ the Pope says, quoting what St John Paul II used to say was the true task of medicine: ‘to cure if possible, always to care’.
Pope Francis notes the role of palliative care, which ‘guarantees the patient not only medical attention, but also human assistance and closeness’.
‘Families should not be left alone in these difficult moments,’ he says, as ‘they need access to adequate means so as to provide appropriate physical, spiritual and social support.’
‘Let us pray that the terminally ill and their families always receive the necessary medical and human care and assistance,’ he says.