Sulla Malattia e sulla Sofferenza
(Translation: Hope Ammann)
- Controluce TSI 23.1.94
- Sacrament of the Sick, Lourdes 25.9.1994
Sermon at the Holy Mass for the administration of the Sacrament of the Sick.
- Convention of the Ticino Association of the Third Age (ATTE), Lugano 03.10.1994
- “On illness and suffering”, meeting in Trevano, 27.11.1994
- Christmas 1994
Bishop Eugenio Corecco, interviewed by Michele Fazioli during the television programme “Controluce” on 23rd of January 1994 on the TSI, moved the Ticino in speaking about his illness. We report part of that interview so that it can be re-interpreted as a testimony of great humanity and help for people to cope with suffering, illness and death in a different way.
Fazioli: … you are once again sick and undergoing treatment. You said it in a letter 7 days ago to all clergymen and therefore to all the Catholics in the Ticino. Mons. Corecco you in effect wrote to the men and women of the Ticino saying “I am ill, I am undergoing treatment, let us strengthen the communion between us”. Why did you write this? Why did you state this publicly?
Corecco: because I have an intuition that it was right to do it because I have a public function. I do not have a private life; indeed, when I became Bishop the private aspect of my life disappeared completely. I have a responsibility to many people; there is no reason to hide an illness. Indeed, revealing the presence of a disease can be of aid to many people who suffer, who are also sick. I notice this moreover because when I go to Bellinzona, to the “San Giovanni” hospital for radiotherapy, I meet many people, and feel that their hearts fill when they see that their Bishop is there with them, too, and that he undergoes the same therapies that they have to. And then I thought that it was a way of giving a testimony, on how to cope with an illness, which is a serious time, perhaps the most serious time in a person’s life (…)
Fazioli: … in your letter, which was read out in the churches of the Ticino last Saturday and Sunday, you say that this illness of yours has to emphasize the communion with the faithful, the members, the Catholics who form part of the Dioceses, of the Church that is in Lugano, that is in the Ticino. What does this relationship between illness and communion mean for you?
Corecco: but, illness is a value, provided that you know how to live it in its true meaning. I have just said that illness represents an extremely serious moment in life, all the more so when the prospect could be even be death. Illness therefore places man face to face with himself, brings him back down to size; man feels that he has within him a “finiteness” but discovers its truth only when this existential, let us say metaphysical, finiteness, that he has within him, is revealed through the illness of the body, and the illness of the body makes him realise that his days are numbered, time is shorter than what a man might think when he is healthy. As a result, man feels the need or the urge to think about his destiny, about the reasons for his living, his dying and his disappearing. So, in this sense we can see that illness has a value, it has within it a value that is common to everyone. Therefore, facing up to the illness and announcing to others, telling others, testifying to others how an illness should be faced helps other people to grow within the same experience. It is true in fact that when two people share the same experience they feel a closer bond of friendship; sharing a religious and spiritual experience produces the same effect.
Fazioli: in an article published on Monday, the Editor of the “Corriere del Ticino”, Sergio Caratti, said that the text of the Bishop’s letter was not meant to instil sadness, but on the contrary to invite serenity, prayer, and is basically a short pastoral letter that teaches Christians the sort of attitude they should take towards an illness. Can it be interpreted in this way, almost as a pastoral instruction?
Corecco: of course, Caratti is perfectly right. He has interpreted it correctly, perhaps even seeing beyond my intentions. I did not intend to write a pastoral letter, nor did I anticipate that this short text would arouse such great interest, but this in fact has been the case and is born out by the many letters that I have received in the past few days.
Fazioli: and you cannot answer all of them of course.
Corecco: I cannot answer all of them. I will try, if I can, when I go to the Holy Land to send them a postcard. However, I thank everyone who has written to me in relation to what I said in my letter. I have received some wonderful letters, which makes us realise that, far from what it appears, many people live deeply spiritual lives and have the sense of these things. For me it is not the first time because, when I had my first operation, I received a mountain of correspondence and I realised then that, yes I would almost dare say that I am more useful to people when I am ill then when I am healthy.
Fazioli: this would indicate that somehow illness, pain, the cross we can say, is almost desirable, but this is a pessimistic approach, because voluntarism through suffering is also wrong.
Corecco: no, we cannot wish them on anyone, not even a Bishop, because the Church teaches us to pray in order to remain in good health; they can become a positive thing after they have happened. People must be able to transform this event, in itself negative, into a time for re-building their characters and for establishing relationships with other people. Christians moreover, regardless of their ability to live these things, have always had a way out because they can always give meaning to their illness, knowing that Christ, who died on the cross, is with them.
Fazioli: talking about this in an interview you said “illness puts everything into discussion: you may recover, you may die, it may change the rest of your life, it makes it clear that we each have a present and future destiny” and further on in this interview with the editor of the “Corriere del Ticino” you said “even if he does not express himself inside through prayer, a sick person understands, registers deep thoughts, experiences feelings of rebellion against his destiny, loves God or hates him, says yes to him or screams injustice; in the final analysis a person either prays or blasphemes but in a hospital bed he always experiences something deeper and therefore more spiritual”.
Corecco: this is true not because it is something I have thought it but something I have experienced. I too was assailed by feelings of rebellion, incomprehension and fear, not so much this time as the previous time, the fear of disappear into nothing, because faith does not eliminate people’s emotivity, does not dispel their fears, not everyone’s at least, because there are also many ways of dying; some people die with joy in their hearts, whereas others die in fear, in the face of death they are very afraid because they have the impression of disappearing into the unknown. And I have experienced these things, I have discovered them, not knowing that people could live this way, it has enriched me. Faith is a judgment that supports people, that prevents them from abandoning themselves to these kinds of things. However, experiencing them and feeling them as temptations is one thing but embracing this solution of life is another thing altogether.
Fazioli: your letter to Catholics asks them to pray. You say: “you can help me with prayer, with your renewed commitment”. You say to your priests, and you say that you are confident, that “this time, too, mutual prayer and the deep prayers of the communities will have the power to create a deeper bond of unity between us”. What, therefore, are you asking from the prayer of the Catholics of the Ticino?
Corecco: I am asking for two things, at the same time, one more important than the other but, in human terms, the importance is reversed. I am asking to recover, but I am asking above all to cope well with the illness, because this is more important than getting better. Moreover I mentioned a Psalm that I have been reading for 50 years and have never discovered, because you can read and re-read a prayer before it suddenly triggers something in your mind, it is as though it switches on a light, and you discover a phrase that you have passed over a thousand times: “Your grace is more important of life”. How many times have I read this phrase? Who knows how many times it has been uttered by priests, nuns and Sunday lay preachers. Then, quite suddenly, I realised the profound truth that is contained in this phrase.
Fazioli: perhaps because in order to be alive faith must be incarnated in real life.
Corecco: certainly. Human experience helps us feel and realise the truth of faith because we are given faith in order to better understand our humanity and our destiny, not in order to replace it, but in order to better realise why faith is not an alternative to life, but is the revelation of the truth about man and about God, a help therefore to better appreciate what we are doing. In other words Faith is following our destiny (…)
So, I have a prayer that has sent to me by a lady. Amongst all the things that they send to me, they send me some extremely meaningful and beautiful prayers. This is the prayer of a priest who lived in the fourth century, and who was also a philosopher and poet, “San Gregorio di Nazanzio” who fell ill. Imagine what falling ill meant in the fourth century; it meant dying. The prayer says: “give me strength God, because now I am destroyed”. He saw death and suffering “my mouth used to speak strongly about You, now it is silent” and he goes on to pray, “God, give me strength, do not abandon me because I want to be well again, to shout your name to everyone”. I was almost afraid of asking God to recover because I said to myself, why should he privilege me when so many people die. But when I read this phrase I started to pray more because I, too, want to carry on praising God. “God, my strength, do not leave me alone”. These are prayers that reveal the heart of man.
Fazioli: the fact that people send you these prayers means that, as you say, as a sick person you have succeeded in creating a perhaps even more intense, more sincere bond, in a deeper way than in your official capacity as a Bishop.
Corecco: that is why I say that it may be that illness makes me more useful than health.
Fazioli: perhaps illness also brings up the issue of time, because there is the time of suffering, of undergoing treatment, of getting better; there is also the perception that it may be one’s last time and so every minute becomes precious for the engagement just of life.
Corecco: it may even be the most favourable time and this is sufficient. (…)
Fazioli: … you also meet people when undergoing radiotherapy at Bellinzona?
Corecco: there are, of course, people who absolutely want to say hello to me. One lady greeted me just before she went in to see the same team of nurses, who afterwards told me that she was happy: “at long last I have touch the Bishop’s hand “. (…)
Fazioli: So, Mons. Corecco, you will also live sharing the therapies, the illness, the possible pain and suffering, all together in a sort of more intense life, although we certainly hope that there will be no suffering and that the treatments have their effect.
Corecco: but, it is not the physical suffering, because nowadays this is easily controlled, even though it cannot be eliminated entirely, but it is not that. Nowadays illness is something spiritual, which can be hard to endure or which can have a meaning.
Fazioli: you realise that with these words you have also spoken to sick people on television.
Corecco: I am pleased to have this opportunity since I perhaps neglect them, because as far as my own personal apostolic mission is concerned, what I myself do, I have focused on young people as a result of an experience, my own personal history, my particular talent in these things. But many times I have said to myself, why don’t I go once a month, spend a whole day in a hospital to meet people. Now I have the opportunity to say that I none the less am thinking of all of them, that I am in their same situation, that I am not consoling them from the outside because…, consoling means helping people to live by speaking to them with words that are true, with words that help them to live through their situation, not to hide it. That is why I wrote the letter; illness should not be hidden away but lived.
Sacrament of the Sick, Lourdes 25.9.94
Sermon at the Holy Mass for the administration of the Sacrament of the Sick.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, what we are performing in this ritual, in which we receive the Sacrament of the Sick, has a long history, dating back to the time of the Apostles. The first communities in fact tried to understand what the consequences would be, in the relations between Christians, of the communion of faith in Jesus Christ and translated this relationship into liturgical and charitable gestures.
In this way they institutionalized the intuition gained, after meditating on Christ’s words, in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”. Saint James, whose words we have just read from chapter 5 of his letter, one day sent this message to Christians: “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven. Confess your faults to one another and pray for one another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much “. This is a new fact in the history of humanity. The men of medicine have always come to the aid of the sick, but not generally the men of the cloth. We are well aware that, in many cultures, the sick were segregated from the healthy communities and left to fend for themselves. Saint James realised that this was not a way for man to live and had the intuition to call the priests and the Christian community to gather around the sick, thereby signifying that the Church must take responsible care of the people who, within its bosom, are sick.
This new departure in the history of humanity is a beautiful gesture, which can be performed only if Jesus Christ’s call to comfort the suffering is taken seriously: “Blessed are the suffering for they will be comforted”. And this has become the Sacrament of the Sick. “After having anointed the sick person with oil in the name of God – oil was regarded as a generic medication, which relieved many physical ailments – pray on him”. Gather together the priests and the community around him so that they look after him, anoint him with oil and pray with him, because “prayer offered with faith will save the sick person”. The Lord will lift him up again and “if he has committed sins, these will be forgiven”. He will save him, place trust in him so that the sick person will still feel useful, will still feel that he belongs to someone, that he has not been abandoned. This is the first sign of salvation, which can also translate into healing. We are well aware that praying for the sick, and Lourdes is proof of this, can also translate into special mercies, even into a miracle.
This fact typically belongs to the culture of the Christians, who immediately started to look after their sick, in every community. It is what we are doing now, giving explicit form to what Saint James, right from the start, exhorted Christians to do.
We must realise therefore that we are performing a simple rite, which might even not exist, but one of the seven Sacraments, one of the fundamental stages of the life of a Christian and of the life of the Christian community, together with Baptism, Confirmation, the Eucharist and Marriage. So, together with all the other Sacraments, there is also a Sacrament that, not only accompanies the future of its individual persons, but that also accompanies those who are afflicted by suffering and perhaps even close to death.
It is already a great consolation to know these things and to know that the Church, which is the Community of all Christians, has the duty, which is born of its very nature, of its very existence, to look after the sick. This prayer and this oil with which the sick are anointed have a redeeming power, they save men’s hearts, they promote their inner conversion, they make them shed tears of grief for their sins, they console men and help them to accept illness and death, they may well even give men the gift of physical salvation.
It is difficult to say which Sacrament, after the Eucharist, is the one we should hold most dear, but this one touches the deepest chords of our humanity, of man, who lives well when he is healthy, but who, when he is sick and feeling that he might even be close to his death, lives in anguish.
This Sacrament expresses the charity of the Church, your charity towards all sick people. And charity represents the zenith of the Christian experience; everything that we do and say to each other must find its expression in mutual charity, in communion. It is a Sacrament that, if lived truly well, expresses the very essence of the Church, the ultimate reason why the Church exists, namely: to forgive us our sins. “Confess therefore your sins to each other and all of you pray for each other to be healed”. Now, before everyone, we have asked God for forgiveness, because we have acknowledged ourselves as sinners, we have recited the “Confiteor” and we are praying together. You realise how great a person’s consolation is, when they feel that others are praying for their salvation, for their body and their soul. I myself am gaining extensive experience of this. I fervently hope that every sick person, who is here among us, can live the same experience, can feel that the whole diocesan community is praying for him, for his salvation, which can also be imparted through consolation, through the peace of the heart when faced with the thought of death, with the acceptance of the fact that man has to one day die. It is the greatest thing that we succeed in doing in life, because death is its most important moment.
You must spread the meaning of this Sacrament amongst Christians, because we are reducing it to a short rite, performed almost secretly, at the last moment, in order not to instil fear in the sick, whereas it is the Sacrament that should help them to consciously accept their situation. We instead have altered it radically. We must fully restore it to our communities and take part in the Sacraments of the Sick administered in the parish. But in order to take part legitimately, we should previously have been mindful of these sick people, supporting them, visiting them, coming to their aid.
After hearing these things, let us reflect for an instance, because everything that I have just said to you is about to become true at this very moment.
At the end of the Eucharistic
Having now finished this liturgy in which we have celebrated the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of the Sick, I wish to thank you all for the unceasing prayers that you have offered for my health: I feel so privileged. But I urge to not to forget the other sick people among us. You must not forget Mons. Farco Biffi, Mons. Albisetti of Chiasso and Don Cipriano Pianini. Please also think of all those people who have died slaughtered in one way or another, without having had the comfort of the Sacrament of the Sick.
It is the theme of this pilgrimage: to open up our hearts to the pain and grief of the whole world, of the whole of humanity, because this is important for the health of our soul. We cannot live thinking only of ourselves, even were it in prayer. We must have a mind that embraces all of the Church’s needs. And use these opportunities, which lend themselves so well to involving, in prayer, all those people who suffer in the world, above all those who suffer in a profoundly unjust way. This is an important moment for our personal growth.
I urge you to pray for all those people who have entrusted themselves to your prayers, because it is easy for us to forget. I remember this often on pilgrimages, because we too urge others to pray for us, before they set out on a pilgrimage. Prayer is the deeper way that we Christians communicate with each other; in the Mystical Body of Christ, of which we form part, mutual prayer is the profoundest and safest communication.
Convention of the Ticino Association
of the Third Age (ATTE) Lugano 3.10.94
“Allow me to attempt a parallel between a serious illness and the third or fourth ages, not because these ages are a, or the illness of life, even were they to be afflicted and marked by bodily and spiritual suffering.
Ignoring the obvious difference between illness and the third age, the two situations have one characteristic in common, and that is the time factor. People in both of these conditions realise that time is getting short, that time is no longer what it used to be, when they could live their lives without thinking about time.
Time becomes a constant presence on the daily horizon of a seriously ill or elderly person. Time intensifies life and delimits it more precisely, highlighting, not only its finiteness, but above all its value.
Time becomes a presence in our life that we cannot escape any more, that we cannot forget, like we could when we were healthy or young.
This realisation is not in any way a negative fact, since we can and must regard it as a positive experience.
As for me personally, I have noticed that, in this situation, the essence of life has become concentrated, acquiring an existential substance that is much stronger than it was previously. I imagine that many of you have noticed it too. Life takes on a dimension of urgency, previously unsuspected, even though the hypothesis of getting better and of still being able to live for a long time was a real one. We come to the realisation that, as well as being unrepeatable, time has become short, and so it must be lived and appreciated more intensely than before, certainly not for what we are still able to do, but for what we experience inside, measuring up both with ourselves and with our destiny.
In this perspective the past becomes secondary: what really counts, since we are still in control of it, is the present. In fact, only if we live in the present can we live the future according to the theme of the Congress: I was, I am, I will be.
Together with the awareness that time is running out, we increasingly begin to notice our loneliness. In fact, either we no longer have people to accompany us in life, like we did when we were young, or we realize, if we are ill, that despite the affectionate solidarity of many people – which is none the less still an immense help – no-one can replace our own person. Two and a half years ago, after an entire day spent in a hospital undergoing tests, I perceived, perhaps for the first time, the loneliness that surrounded me. The doctor could still have offered me, as a sign of his affection, a cup of tea to sip, but it was all he could have done. Then, I would have to face up to things alone, by myself.
Even when I say this, I do not intend for it to acquire in any way a negative connotation. Loneliness too, which is in any case a constant presence within us, can and must become a possibility for gaining greater awareness of ourselves. And all the more so because it is never too late to acquire this awareness of life and of the meaning of our destiny. It can even come to us right at the end, and this is enough. Both the certainty that time is running out and becomes charged with a new human intensity, and knowing how to face up to our loneliness with greater maturity helps us to discover the unrepeatable value of our person. These seem to me to be the two aspects, both profoundly positive, that illness and old age have in common. They help us to realise with greater dignity, and perhaps with greater conviction too, the meaning of our present, past and future life.
Each person will be able to find his own solution in the values that he has always believed in: the solution that can most support him. And I sincerely hope that all of you will be able to do this, so as not to live the third and fourth ages of your lives in regret, melancholy or resignation; for a Christian however, it is normal that this new spirituality should translate into prayer.
It is inevitable that, in these situations of life, a believer should think about his origin, establishing a more intense relationship, while carrying on his everyday life, with the Lord, on whom he knows that he totally depends for his existence. This also gives a liveable meaning to solitude because, in his inner prayer, a Christian is trying to discover a final companion for his person, the one who will be with him at the end.
If this testimony of mine will help you to live your lives more intensely and with a greater sense of security in your hearts, then I am very happy that I have succeeded in communicating it to you”.
On illness and suffering
The mission of the Bishop does not consist solely of preaching the Gospel, of announcing the Word, but also lies in materially helping the faithful who are entrusted to him to live this announcement. Precisely because he must, as far as he is able, materially help the faithful to embody the Gospel in their everyday lives, I believe that he has the duty to talk about the way in which he has faced illness and about the way in which illness can be faced, because illness is an integrating part of human life. If we left illness outside of life, we would not be sincere, we would not be covering the whole of human existence; indeed we would not be covering an essential part of our human experience.
Our society, on the other hand, tends to extrapolate illness outside the context of social life because, while a great deal is done to help people to overcome illness, at the same time we censor it. Nobody in fact gladly talks about being in poor health and the main value of life is often is placed in the health that a person enjoys. “Health above all else”; “the most important thing is to be healthy”: these are statements that are constantly expressed not only amongst men, but also amongst those who believe in Jesus Christ. The supreme value of life is often identified as the enjoyment of good health. Health is certainly an important condition for being able to do many things that we must achieve in life, but it is not the basic presupposition for our life to truly have value. Even people who suffer, who have to cope with serious illness, who are ill for the whole of their lives, can enjoy a beautiful human experience and can give their existence an inestimable value. If well lived, illness can often give life a greater value than health itself can give. This is the reason why I accepted the invitation of Caritas, who I thank for having had this idea of inviting me to talk about my experience, but mainly because they are trying to help everyone suffering from serious illness. I thank Caritas, because perhaps only Caritas, being a reflection of what the Church must do in society, could conceive the idea of asking a Bishop to speak in public about his illness. It is not possible to talk on “Controluce” every week, it perhaps can be done only once in a lifetime, but I still want to get back to the issue, albeit in other terms, inasmuch as not prompted by any question, because I am convinced that I can help those of you who are ill and also those of you who are healthy, even though you are not in the right condition to be able to understand what the value of illness is, to live your life in such a profound way that it gives value to physical suffering, too.
Healthy people have difficulty in understanding and this was my own personal experience, too, before I became ill. I almost never considered the problem of suffering through illness. And I do not think I have not understood a lot about illness, reading simply texts or books on the subject. Because it is only the attention that we pay to the experience that we are going through that really enables us to understand the true essence of our life. In fact, simply by living an experience with awareness, we can always obtain from it an indication for our life.
Thinking back to a beautiful service that we perform every year and that we have performed this year too, I asked myself why our particular Church feels the need to takes its sick to Lourdes. It is not a project, nor is it even a simple gesture of charity, it is not simply to help people to go there and pray to the Madonna for spiritual or physical healing. I think that this gesture by the Church to bring its sick together – and the Gospel reminds us that this phenomenon began around the person of Jesus – is prompted by a deeper need, that goes beyond the need and the situation of each individual person, and that is to show that, in the midst of Christian people, in the experience of the Christian community, illness has a prophetic value. By taking the sick to Lourdes, we want to make manifest this function, this value of illness, making public what illness really is. Because illness is always a sign of death. It is in this that the prophetic value of being ill lies. Everyone in fact, when struck by an illness that could shortly lead to death, anticipates life’s final moment, death: the most important moment in a person’s life, in the passing from this life on earth to future life. Illness appears among us as a sign and reminder of what we shall all us have to face: the moment of our death. We have to talk about this value, we have to talk about it continually among us, because death is the most important moment of our existence. Illness can help us understand its importance, to understand how great the moment of the end of our earthly life is. It helps us in fact to realise in advance – hence its prophetic character – our destiny and how much we need “Another”, Someone greater than us. If lived well, illness is the moment in a man’s life that more than any other can teach and help him understand who he is, who “God” is and how much greater is “God”. In effect, because of the experience that I am going through, but first of all because of what the Gospel reveals to us, illness helps to realise whether we are truly willing, in life, to do God’s will. At the end of his life in fact, the real problem for a Christian is not, first of all, to succeed in asking for the forgiveness of his sins or in making even a general confession. The real problem that remains to be solved, even though we confess our sins, even though we receive the Sacrament of the Sick, is to succeed in saying our “Yes” to the Lord, who calls us. In the face of this, yes, we are afraid. In the course of our life, it is not easy to really say “Yes” to God, without resorting to subterfuges. We say it a thousand times a day, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but we often and generally live with mental reservations. We say “Yes” to God, but we also say yes to our own plans, our own wishes. Rather than pray to God for his will to be done, we beseech him to accommodate our own requests, to do our will. There is nothing wrong in this: in fact we can ask God to do what we would like to be done, but in the knowledge that the most important thing is none the less for God’s will to be done. The problem with death is knowing how to face it, saying “Yes” to God, saying: “I am willing to come”. It may appear simple, but in actual fact it is very difficult. And illness prepares us, because in suffering illness we find ourselves in almost the same situation as death. This is why it is more important to die through illness, than to die a sudden and unexpected death. Lots of people think that the best way to go is to die suddenly, so as not to suffer, so as not to be aware of what it is happening, so as not to cause disturbance to anybody. But this is a line of thought that a Christian should not follow, because illness helps us prepare for death: be it an illness that places us close to death or one where death is still relatively far away, but one that none the less contains the “germ” of death. An unexpected death is not something we should hope and wish for, because suffering helps us to prepare ourselves, to present ourselves to the Lord, to follow the Lord who is calling us. This is what we must all wish for: to be ready to say our “Yes” to God. Before my first serious operation, I was visiting a lady at a hospital in Lugano one day and I realized that this lady, although she had always attended the religious services in the cathedral, was faithful, assiduous and dedicated to prayer, was unable to accept the fact of having to die. I went to visit her to try and help her realise that the essential thing in her situation was to accept this call to God, however premature it might seem. I thought about this a lot until, having fallen too ill, I understood how this lady, even though she was a good Christian, might not accept the moment of death, because I think that I myself have also experienced the same temptations that she did. Death is the moment of temptation and illness is prophetic, because it gives us a foretaste of the temptations that death brings to us. These temptations spring from our reason and grip all those affected by serious illness, which can lead to death. In fact, anyone who finds himself in this situation inevitably asks himself: “Why me”; “What have I done wrong”; “I have always tried to bring my children up in the right way, and yet now I have to die”; “Where is the justice in that”. It is regarded as something unjust. Life appears to be a swindle, a promise of something which then ends in a way that apparently does not contain any promise, that no longer fulfils any promise, until the person thinks that it is better not to live, than to die like this. These are the temptations that beset people who are close to death; in sick people, in people who are aware that they could die. They feel the force of these objections which are apparently raised by our reason and they rebel. I realised that that lady was going through an experience that was not peculiar to her, but that first of all had become my own experience and is probably everyone’s experience. A rebellion against death, a moment that in certain cases arrives sooner because of illness, a rebellion felt by Jesus too, because he lived the whole human experience. He went through everything that a man can experience and endure in his existence. In the very face of death Jesus underwent the deepest experience we can imagine, when he sweated blood in the garden of “Gethsemane”. In the midst of all the atrocities that we see happening today, we have never heard of people who sweat blood when faced with death. And yet Jesus, says the Gospel, sweated blood. It means that his fear in the face of death almost went beyond the bounds of human expression. It means that he truly was afraid of disappearing into nothing, of being encased in a tomb that is closed, never again to be opened, taking away our personal life without leaving a trace. On the cross God he screamed out the words of a psalm from the Old Testament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, words of desperation that then dissolve into feelings of hope, of trust in God. On the cross he expressed the first part of this experience, that the Hebrew people had given a formal tone and poetic style to. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”. We experience the same feelings. In the face of death we, too, have the impression of having been forsaken by God. We do not sweat blood, because in our person we do not contain the whole strength of humanity present in Jesus, who embodied the experience of everyone of us. His experience was more precise, deeper and more painful than ours is. Not only does each one of us, therefore, feel the temptation of avoiding God’s will, struggle to adjust our own life when called by God and to truly say an unreserved and totally honest “yes” to him; Jesus Christ went through the same experience.
This consoles us, helps us, helps us realise that we must not despair, because, in the same way that Christ was able to get through this trial by asking his Father to do his will, i.e. his Father’s will and not his own, we too can do it. We too shall have the strength, we too shall have the grace to ask the Father to do his, rather than our own will. What was possible in Jesus Christ, is possible for us too. However, we must not reach this moment unprepared, otherwise it becomes very difficult.
Illness is not only a prophetic moment, a moment that brings forward the final moment; it is not only the moment when we, just like Jesus did, feel the temptation to rebel against God, but it is also a grace. To say that illness is a grace is very difficult. I too perhaps might never have been able to say this. Saying that illness is a grace offends our common sense, apparently goes against our reason. If, however, we examine what happens during the course of an illness, we realise that it is true, that illness is a grace. We are all afraid or would be afraid of making this assertion to another person and yet it is profoundly true. Because, looking closely at what happens in us during our illness, at what the illness does to us, if we live all this in a Christian way, we realise that an enormous change takes place. From when the illness started to afterwards, we feel that we have undergone a deep change, we are not the same people we were before: this is the grace. Therefore it is true that illness is a grace. But we can only say this afterwards. If we say it before, it is as though it were too early, it is as though it were an ideology. It is instead only on the basis of the experience that we have gone through, which I myself have undoubtedly gone through to some degree, that we can say that illness is a grace. And we must know how to live it as a grace. Because illness changes our relationship with God, we certainly come close to him, we pray more, even though it be only to ask him to help make us better: a legitimately biased prayer.
Illness causes us to feel the time that we are living in a different way than before. We realise that life is something extremely precious, that it is the greatest gift that we have received from God. We discover that time has a different intensity compared to before, no longer in relation to all the things that we have to do, but with regard to the existential experience of our person. We feel that time is precious, because time is pressing, because we no longer have the chance of wasting, like we did before. Time becomes more substantial, something that we would like to live as intensely as possible.
Illness changes us, because it makes us touch with our own hands the loneliness that we have inside us. There are in fact moments during the illness when a person realises that in the final analysis the issue is only his. Nobody can take his place. Nobody can do or say anything in his place. He feels his own finiteness and he realises that only one Person can fill this finiteness, because this person is someone greater than him: it is The One who gave us life. We discover that loneliness cannot be overcome within the human experience; we cannot overcome personal loneliness in any situation of our life. Whether we get married, or become God’s ministers, or consecrate our lives to God, there is a point of our life in which we are always alone before God and no one from the outside can help us by taking our taking place. This drives us, opens the door in us to the discovery of the fact that only God can fill the human loneliness that we have inside us. These few things should suffice to bring us to the realisation, afterwards, that illness truly is a grace. Said at the beginning, it can seem totally untrue or absurd, but the analysis of what happens within our person shows that the statement that illness is a grace is profoundly true.
There is however one condition that I have left as a final thought. Everything that I have said comes true for us, only if we succeed in accepting the illness. The most important thing that we have to do, our own first attitude towards the sick, is to personally accept what happens to us and help others to do the same. We must help the sick to accept their situation.
“Anyone who loves his father, his mother, his brothers and sisters …”, this statement by Jesus in the Gospel, where moreover he does not intend to be exhaustive in the examples he gives, helps this reflection of ours. Jesus states in fact that anyone who loves someone or something “more than me, is not worthy of me”. So, if we love health as a supreme value, we are not worthy of Jesus Christ. We must therefore learn to accept in our hearts, without pretence, without subterfuges – subterfuge is the subtlest temptation – truly succeeding in standing before God in all sincerity.
Accepting the illness is the condition whereby it can become a prophetic sign, a moment in which we overcome the temptations that we experience throughout our lives, whereby we can realise that it is a grace, inasmuch as it changes us inwardly. Acceptance is the presupposition that we must have within us, that the Lord can give us as a grace, because on our own we cannot fully realize it.
The first thing that we must do when we are ill is to accept our station before God, so as to allow this new situation of our existence to manifest all the beneficial effects, all the beneficial consequences, which the world may perhaps not share. I just wanted to say this to you and what I have told to you I have experienced, I did not simply think it. I have probably thought of lots of things but if I have thought them it is because God has given me the grace to accept, I hope, my illness. And if I have thought, it is because I have tried to live what has happened to me in a certain way, which is exactly the same thing that could happen to anyone else.
That is the reason why Caritas did a good thing in inviting me to talk about this experience, which has become, to some extent, a message about illness, a message that is however closely linked to that experience that God has granted I should undergo.
Saying that I thank God for this is not easy, because it is like saying to God that I thank him for having taken away from us something fundamental: our health. It is not easy for me, it is not easy for anyone, it is not easy for the Pope, because we are touching the most sensitive, truest and most vital point of our whole human experience, that of being truly sincere before the Lord, when we say things about Him and about ourselves in relation to him.
† Bishop Eugenio.
Questions from the audience
I heard a young person say: “death does not scare me, the thing that frightens me is suffering…”. Was it, perhaps, that for this young person the aspect of the relationship between suffering and death was not very clear?
I have the impression that before God it is easier to be sincere whereas, sometimes, when we are ill, the context in which we live makes it even more difficult to face our suffering because we already feel a bit outside of things and our possibilities reduced. How can we overcome these difficulties?
Monsignor Bishop, during this illness of yours, you have given us an exemplary demonstration of how is possible to reconcile oneself to treatment, because you have not shirked any treatment, looking instead beyond the therapy. You have shown and taught us how much this experience has been, for you, an opportunity to show maturity, while continuing to pursue your apostolic mission. How can we doctors, nurses and everyone who works in the health service ask our patients to look beyond their illness. In our daily experience we often see our patients practically identifying with their “role” as sick people and living solely for the purpose of getting better. How can we carry out with them a reflection on illness that will help them to stop identifying themselves with their illness?
I wanted to ask you a question with regard to children’s illness, because you have spoken about illness in adults, who are able to realise that they are ill and endure the illness. Going to Lourdes and seeing the children taken to the swimming-pools, we see all sorts of illness and all sorts of reaction. I would like to know how the illness of children should be faced?
I take my cue from what was said about the illness of children. A family who loses a son, who has a child who is fighting a drug addiction and who is unable to help him. How can a person accept it? Do they go to the Madonna with their child on their knees and say: I offer him to you God … but it is hard. David, too, at the death of Absalom shouted out: Absalom, my son, why did I not die instead of you?
I am a priest and I would like to go back to the question that a doctor just asked you, applying it however to us priests, because I think that it is a very important part of a priest’s work with the sick. I, too, am seriously ill, and like you, Monsignor Bishop, I have realised what it means to suffer but, very often, we clergymen do not have a clear idea on how to talk to a sick person in order to first instil in him, if possible, the trust to accept the illness and then lead him to God.
Bishop Eugenio’s answers
I think that the fact that a young person dies more easily than a mature or even elderly person is a fairly universal observation. Why? I do not know how to explain it but I have the impression that, here too, based on the experience that we have all already made, a young person still does not have an overall understanding of the meaning of life, he is more casual about life and less attached to it. It is frequently the case that old people, as they get older, become more attached to life because it becomes such a complete experience for them that it is more difficult for them to detach themselves from it. I think that this is the explanation but it is my own personal impression.
How can we help other people? We cannot help others if we are not someone; simply saying something to other people does not help. It is not said at the right moment, if we are not and do not identify with what we say. The more we identify with what we say (because what we say is what we truly think, what we have inside us, is the experience that we have been through) the more we can console the patient. There is also probably a question of technique, of knowing how to talk to sick people, but I believe that no technique can take the place of truth. When we talk to sick people we must be true and we must be convinced about what we say, to the point that we ourselves practise it. In this way, we shall have a better chance of being able to help other people.
To some extent this question is related to the one raised by the priest who says that we clergymen are not all that accustomed to dealing with the problem of illness and death. But this is true for everyone, because a sick person is not necessarily consoled by a priest or a specialist, but by someone who knows the right words to say, because consoling does not mean dealing with the problem on a psychological level. Consoling means saying to another person that word that really helps him to live, that proposes a value to him. You do not console a sick person by saying: “Look, you will probably get better”, hiding part of the truth from him. No, you console a sick person by saying to them words that are true. The words of the Gospel are always true and we must have the courage to not say our own words, but the words of the Gospel, even though they may appear absurd to men.
We have to say that illness is a grace, but we need to know how to say it in the right way; we also need to know the right moment, the opportune moment to say it; nor must it be said like this but in another way. We need to make the person realise that he is changing, that he can change, that his illness helps reconcile him with his family. There are lots of ways of saying the same thing which said face on can seem impossible but we must, when talking to a sick person, to a terminally ill person, say: “Look, you can see for yourself, your illness has changed you; this shows you that the Lord has shown you great favour”. In this way we console a person in his innermost self because he realises that what is happening to him is not pointless, is not an injustice, is not one of life’s swindles against which he can rebel. True and genuine consolation is provided by words that are true and genuine.
And this is true whether we are priests, nuns or lay people! We have to be able to say the same things. It is not because a person is a priest that is necessarily able to say them, even though he may appear to be a professional in the matter. A priest is not necessarily the person in the best condition to say the right words. We are all called to console; consoling is one of the many things Christians must do; compassionate deeds are part of what Christians must do in their lives, that they are called to perform. Compassionate deeds are not an extra, they form part of what we are and are the expression of our experience.
We shall perform them only if we are truly deep in our faith, and so, with regard to doing them, I shall just say this to you: in order to be able to be of comfort to the sick and dying we must be able to say words that are also true for us.
With regard to children, a child is a child in both life and death, in the sense that he, or she, is not able to live the same experience as an adult, and so everything, in every sense, is reduced to the experience that a child is capable of living. And when he is ill too, a child is unable to grasp, as instead an adult should be able to do, the meaning of what is happening to him, and so everything is in proportion. This having been said, the child must still be taught to obtain from his illness all the good that is possible, he has to be helped, in the same way the he is helped to live the Christian sacramental experience in the best possible way, But we must still bear in mind that his degree of human development does not allow him to make such a complete experience as an adult could make. We are sure that a child is capable of understanding everything. When his mother teaches her child the sign of the cross and tells him God is the father, the child realises that God is not the father like his own father is, that he is something different; he is probably unable to explain it but he intuitively understands the truth that is hidden behind the word father applied to God. We understood It too. Faith is an intuition that is not always able to give reasons for what it intuitively understands, but it knows by intuition that it is true; all pedagogy is based on this: pedagogy in general and the Christian pedagogy. We can explain to a child the mysteries, the greatest mystery which is that of the “Trinity” and say to a child that God has become man and that Saint Joseph was his putative father, and the child understands. The same is true for illness; if we say to the child that God still loves him, then the child understands this. Only we must have the strength, the courage and the conviction of how important it is to say it to him.
The same thing applies to the mother who loses her child in an accident, to drugs. It will be difficult, it will be in certain situations even impossible but we must try to help these people to accept what is happening to them, because from this you can start to construct. Without this presupposition it is not possible to console a person; they will never understand.
The message may be a long one and can be effective in proportion to our own personal faith, but there is no other route to follow than to say to every person, to any person, in any situation they find themselves in, the complete truth: that truth that we find in the Gospel. Nothing we can say will be more effective than this.
The Christian faith consoles us because it helps us to understand the meaning of things and we do not have to go and look for the meaning of things in anything other than what we believe in. A person who does not believe will try to console another person by saying what he has inside him. We must console a person by saying what we have inside us, which we are the carriers of, which we are the witnesses of. This is consolation, anything else is not consolation, like when some misfortune happens and we go into families, and say false, banal things, in an attempt to console people. At the most we console them because we are showing a physical and moral presence to their grief and pain but, in the majority of cases, I believe we would have done better to keep our mouths closed, because we say things that have no strength for a Christian. I believe I have answered all your questions.
I thank you all, but before closing I would like to add this: insomuch as I have succeeded in helping you to understand something about the problem of illness or to confirm what you already had in your hearts and minds, I would like to draw your attention to the importance of accompanying the sick.
Christians must accompany the sick, it takes time, it requires generosity. We have to overcome our resistance but providing people with consolation is a task that we must perform, that we cannot avoid. The Sacrament of the Sick helps us realise that, when a person falls ill, the Church gathers around him to pray. The Sacrament of the Sick is a gesture that, generally speaking, in previous cultures to Christianity did not exist; the sick were excluded from society. In his letter Saint James says: (and for him to say it is an indication that it was still not happening) “If there is a sick person among you call the elderly, the elders or the rest of the faithful so that they can anoint this sick person and pray with him, so that he be saved”.
Accompanying the sick, which must develop much more than it has so far, is simply a more recurring part of the celebration of the Sacrament of the Sick, but it is aligned exactly with what Saint James says: “Gather around him and pray with him, console him, saying true words”. They are not two separate things. Every so often we can also celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick, but we must in general develop accompanying the sick as a normal practise of Christian life. There are many groups that gather together and organize themselves for this purpose. We are also called to do this, there is nothing in life that we are not called to do, we must do everything.
This evening I say to you: we must accompany the sick with much more awareness than we have done up until now.
I thank you.
Dear fellow priests, dear brothers and sisters in the Lord, Jesus’ birthday is in itself a day of inexpressible joy for us Christians. It reminds us of and helps us to re-live the moment when God revealed himself to the world, showing himself like a child, crying and laughing in a cradle. In whatever situation it happens, even in the most painful of life’s circumstances, the birth of a child is always a magical moment: it instils in everyone a great desire to celebrate.
For us Christians the birth of Jesus is a day of joy, for an immeasurably deeper reason. It is a joy that springs from an event that is not solely human, but from the fact that this Child is our Redeemer. This Child marks the beginning of the story of our salvation which, as well as granting us the forgiveness of all our sins, enables us to discover the true face of God: the face of the Trinity.
Christmas, however, is a time of joy that is always accompanied to some degree by pain. This was true even on the first Christmas day, the day when Jesus was physically born of Mary of Nazareth, not just because of the actual pain she suffered in giving birth, but also because the fear that someone might try to kill the Child very soon disturbed the joy of the Sacred Family.
However, the innumerable Christmases celebrated by Christians at times of immense physical and mental suffering have never lost that moment of irrepressible joy generated by the birth of Christ. The Christian Christmas always brings with it the experience of joy and pain.
In a text of the Ambrosian liturgy Saint Ambrose asks Jesus, all wrapped up in his swaddling clothes: “Quare rubiconda vestimenta tua?” – why are your clothes are already stained with the blood of the cross?
Dear brothers and sisters, like the Christmas of Our Lord, like the Christmases of very many Christians and the overwhelming majority of men and women on this planet of ours, this year my Christmas, too, is tinged not only with joy but also with a little pain.
In fact, in Bern, just before Christmas, I had to undergo orthopaedic surgery in my pelvic region.
There is of course no comparison between the pain suffered by Christ on the cross, between the pain that atrociously afflicts billions of people and the physical and mental suffering of a person who undergoes an operation in a modern hospital, such as ours, equipped with all the very latest equipment.
However, a relationship between these various manifestations of human suffering does exist: it lies in the fact that all who suffer, regardless of the gravity of their suffering, can, by following the example of and yielding themselves to Christ, become source of purification and of expiation for the bad things we have done, in our own society and in the entire world. I am perfectly aware that, compared to the overwhelming majority of sufferers, I enjoy one extraordinary privilege: that of being accompanied by your prays. I know that, thanks to you, I have accumulated an enormous patrimony of prayers, which allows me to overcome every difficulty, as it would allow any other person.
The greatest difficulty, however, never comes from physical and mental suffering, but lies in accepting illness as a sign of the presence of God in our lives. In the face of this sign we are asked to inwardly say “yes”, as we are asked to do by the Christian’s model prayer, the Our father: “They will be done”.
Moreover, for Christ too, the most difficult moment to overcome was not the suffering on the cross, but that moment in the garden of the Gethsemane, when, sweating blood, he had the clear perception of having to promise to his Father that he would do his will: “Father, if you wish, take this cup away from me! But let not my will be done, but yours”(Lc 22, 42).
I am sure, dear worshippers, that the immense patrimony of prayers that you have put together over these last few years, in order to help your Bishop, will once again be extremely effective this time too.
It is precisely this certainty that helps me do everything I can to accept from God this fresh difficulty. I am equally certain that the help that you give me will also benefit you yourselves, your families and all of the circle of people who are dear to you. Despite the uncertainty of the joy of those who, today, are celebrating this Christmas tormented by hunger, violence and war, I pray to the Lord that in all of you, within your families, in the company of your children and your friends, the moment and the expression of joy prevails over everything else that might overshadow it.
The greeting of “Merry Christmas”, which we traditionally exchange with each other, must retain its intrinsic meaning: that of being the manifestation of our faith in Jesus Christ, who by redeeming us through his birth, death and resurrection, allows all believers to experience – at Christmastime at least – a moment of profound gratitude and joy.
† Bishop Eugenio