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World Day of the Sick tomorrow is a time to care for the most excluded in society

At every stage: “The Catholic healing ministry is there for the community at the beginning, in our maternity wards and at life’s end, in our aged-care facilities and palliative care wards.”

THIS week – on February 11 – the Church will observe the 28th  World Day of the Sick, an occasion to be in prayerful solidarity with those suffering ill-health and those who care for them.

It is also an occasion to reflect on the witness and meaning of Jesus’ ministry of healing – a ministry which continues to inspire today the Catholic organisations responsible for about 80 public and private Catholic hospitals around Australia.

Central to the approach to care provided by Catholic health ministries is the Gospel story of the Good Samaritan.

Marist Father Gerry Arbuckle, a prolific writer on the mission of the Catholic health and aged-care sector, describes the parable of the Good Samaritan as the founding story of Catholic healthcare.

It captures the touchstones of Jesus’ healing ministry reflecting three core dimensions: radical inclusion, accompaniment and restoration to community and service.

Fr Arbuckle explains that because he was covered in blood, the victim beaten and robbed by thieves was “automatically stigmatised as impure, untouchable, and, therefore, a social outcast”. 

“People would hesitate to touch him because doing so would render them ritually impure, thereby necessitating lengthy rituals of purification,” Fr Arbuckle explains. 

For the Catholic health and aged-care sector, “radical inclusion” means bringing the most socially excluded among us to the centre of our work and our care.

These are the people the Catholic health sector has always focused on – the social outcast and the marginalised – whether it was the poor living in Darlinghurst in the 1850s,  those enduring the stigma of AIDS in the 1980s, or the long ignored Indigenous communities today.

It is why Catholic hospitals strive to serve everyone but particularly those that society has forgotten and excluded. 

Second, the ministry of healing involves “accompaniment”.

We seek to journey with those we care for, entering into the experience of the person in need.

Ours is not one of episodic treatment or a focus on simply physical care of the body.

Rather care encompasses the whole person: body as well as mind, spirit as well as family and connection to the community to which a person belongs. 

Again, the Good Samaritan is our model – he tended the victim of thieves when all others passed by, and then “also ensured” he continued to be cared for beyond the immediate crisis.

“He went up to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. He then lifted him onto his own mount and took him to an inn and looked after him.” (Luke 10:34)

Fr Arbuckle explains there was actually some risk for the Samaritan in accompanying our victim to a place of safety. 

“His courage is further tested when he walks with the mount to avoid exacerbating the sufferings of the victim, thus further risking an attack,” he said.

“The story’s listeners would have known that the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, with its tortuous bends and rocky sides, was ideal for robbers.”

Finally, for those in our care we seek “restoration to community and service” – a restoration which encompasses those cared for as well as our care professionals and the wider community.

Our Catholic vision emphasises relationship with others, and the use of our gifts for the benefit of the community and all creation.

Holistic healing facilitates where possible, a person’s capacity to continue those essential relationships as well as a capacity to contribute meaningfully to our world. 

Pope Francis, in his message for this year’s World Day of the Sick has chosen as his theme the words of Jesus “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).  

Pope Francis addresses the sick: “Dear brothers and sisters who are ill, your sickness makes you in a particular way one of those ‘who labour and are burdened’, and thus attract the eyes and heart of Jesus.

“In him, you will find light to brighten your darkest moments and hope to soothe your distress.

“He urges you: ‘Come to me’.” 

And the Pope speaks to all of us, urging us to care for the poor and under-served: “On this (28th) World Day of the Sick, I think of our many brothers and sisters throughout the world who have no access to medical care because they live in poverty.

“For this reason, I urge healthcare institutions and government leaders throughout the world not to neglect social justice out of a preoccupation for financial concerns.

“It is my hope that, by joining the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, efforts will be made to co-operate in ensuring that everyone has access to suitable treatments for preserving and restoring their health.” 

In Australia we have a tradition of healing of which we can be very proud.

One need only think of the amazing Catholic hospitals in our major cities to comprehend its breath and significance – think Calvary, St John of God, St Vincent’s, Mercy, Mater and Cabrini.

We have aged-care facilities run by a wide range of Catholic providers, lay and religious.

All our Catholic ministries seek both to provide direct care to those in need, as well as be agents for a more just and accessible system of care.

This quest inspires and drives the work of Catholic Health Australia on behalf of our member hospitals and aged-care organisations.

Together we strive to bring alive today the healing ministry of Jesus, exemplified by the Good Samaritan.

We continue to respond in a spirit of radical inclusion, accompaniment and restoration to community and service. 

The Catholic healing ministry is there for the community at the beginning, in our maternity wards and at life’s end, in our aged-care facilities and palliative care wards.

We seek to care for everyone not only in our hospitals, but in their homes and in their communities.

We strive to honour the long tradition in which we stand of service to the sick and under-served and, inspired by the creativity and generosity of our founders, we commit to innovative new horizons of care wherever the demands of the Gospel might lead. 

As a community of faith let us commit to prayerful solidarity with those struggling with sickness, and with clinicians and caregivers who nurture their healing and accompany their suffering. 

Written by Pat Garcia, who is the chief executive officer of Catholic Health Australia.

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