Pope Francis said on Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic had “exposed inefficiencies in the care of the sick.”
In his message for the 29th World Day of the Sick, released on Jan. 12, he argued that vulnerable people were unable to gain access to treatment amid the pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than 1.9 million people worldwide.
“The current pandemic has exacerbated inequalities in our healthcare systems and exposed inefficiencies in the care of the sick. Elderly, weak and vulnerable people are not always granted access to care, or in an equitable manner,” he said.
“This is the result of political decisions, resource management and greater or lesser commitment on the part of those holding positions of responsibility.”
In the message, signed on Dec. 20, he called for greater investment in healthcare, describing it as “a priority linked to the fundamental principle that health is a primary common good.”
The pope said that the coronavirus crisis had also revealed the heroism of “a silent multitude of men and women” caring for coronavirus patients.
“Yet the pandemic has also highlighted the dedication and generosity of healthcare personnel, volunteers, support staff, priests, men and women religious, all of whom have helped, treated, comforted and served so many of the sick and their families with professionalism, self-giving, responsibility and love of neighbor,” he wrote.
“A silent multitude of men and women, they chose not to look the other way but to share the suffering of patients, whom they saw as neighbors and members of our one human family. Such closeness is a precious balm that provides support and consolation to the sick in their suffering.”
Pope John Paul II established the World Day of the Sick in 1992. It is marked on Feb. 11, the liturgical memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes.
The theme of this year’s observance is “You have but one teacher and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8), taken from a Gospel passage in which Jesus criticizes those who fail to practice what they preach.
“Jesus’ criticism of those who ‘preach but do not practice’ is helpful always and everywhere, since none of us is immune to the grave evil of hypocrisy, which prevents us from flourishing as children of the one Father, called to live universal fraternity,” the pope said.
“Before the needs of our brothers and sisters, Jesus asks us to respond in a way completely contrary to such hypocrisy. He asks us to stop and listen, to establish a direct and personal relationship with others, to feel empathy and compassion, and to let their suffering become our own as we seek to serve them.”
The 84-year-old pope has himself recently struggled with illness. He was unable to preside at the Vatican’s liturgies on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day because of “painful sciatica” that has affected him for a number of years.
In his message for the World Day of the Sick this February, he reflected on the impact of illness.
“The experience of sickness makes us realize our own vulnerability and our innate need of others. It makes us feel all the more clearly that we are creatures dependent on God,” he wrote.
“When we are ill, fear and even bewilderment can grip our minds and hearts; we find ourselves powerless, since our health does not depend on our abilities or life’s incessant worries.”
“Sickness raises the question of life’s meaning, which we bring before God in faith. In seeking a new and deeper direction in our lives, we may not find an immediate answer. Nor are our relatives and friends always able to help us in this demanding quest.”
The pope offered the example of the biblical figure of Job, who faced the incomprehension of those around him as he struggled with a series of calamities.
Francis stressed that Job’s agony was “not a punishment or a state of separation from God,” noting that God finally answered Job’s cries and allowed him “to glimpse a new horizon.”
The pope underlined the importance of the “relational aspect” of care for the sick.
“Emphasizing this aspect can help doctors, nurses, professionals and volunteers to feel responsible for accompanying patients on a path of healing grounded in a trusting interpersonal relationship,” he wrote.
“This creates a covenant between those in need of care and those who provide that care, a covenant based on mutual trust and respect, openness and availability.”
“This will help to overcome defensive attitudes, respect the dignity of the sick, safeguard the professionalism of healthcare workers and foster a good relationship with the families of patients.”
He said that this relationship between carer and patient can be sustained by the “charity of Christ,” pointing to “the witness of those men and women who down the millennia have grown in holiness through service to the infirm.”
“For the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection is the source of the love capable of giving full meaning to the experience of patients and caregivers alike,” the pope said.
“The Gospel frequently makes this clear by showing that Jesus heals not by magic but as the result of an encounter, an interpersonal relationship, in which God’s gift finds a response in the faith of those who accept it. As Jesus often repeats: ‘Your faith has saved you.’”
He underlined that caring for the sick is a way of honoring Jesus’ commandment of love given to his disciples.
“A society is all the more human to the degree that it cares effectively for its most frail and suffering members, in a spirit of fraternal love. Let us strive to achieve this goal, so that no one will feel alone, excluded or abandoned,” he urged.
The pope concluded his message by entrusting the sick and their carers to Mary, Mother of Mercy and Health of the Infirm.
“From the Grotto of Lourdes and her many other shrines throughout the world, may she sustain our faith and hope, and help us care for one another with fraternal love,” he wrote.