The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Morning of Reflection: Ministry to the Sick 1

Yesterday, I was honored to be asked to conduct a morning of reflection for the Ministers to the Sick from our parish along with and a number of ministers from one of our neighboring parishes, St. Theresa in Belleview, Florida. 

The content of this post includes my brief introduction, followed by the first of three talks. I will include the other two talks in subsequent posts. Each talk was about 30 minutes long.


Good morning all. As Mary said, I'm Deacon Dana McCarthy, one of the permanent deacons assigned here to St. Vincent de Paul Parish. I've been here for 14 years now - in fact it's 14 years next month - and have seen the St. Vincent de Paul grow from a small but ever more crowded mission church, to a large ever more crowded parish church.

But in all those years this parish has been truly blessed by those who were here from its beginnings, people like Mary Wresh and her husband, Al. The other day I came across a 20-year-old parish booklet filled with photos of parishioners and ministries. I think there were six people in the photo of the Ministers to the Sick.

How many do we have now, Mary? Over 100? 

Before we begin, I suppose you'd like to know what we'll be doing this morning and how we'll be doing it. I intend to give a series of talks on various aspects of your ministry. And after each talk I'll toss out a few questions that I hope you will discuss in small groups. We'll then ask you to present your conclusions so we can all learn from what you discussed.

Nothing complex - a very straightforward approach. And somewhere in the midst of it all, we'll take a break or two.

The overall theme today is healing, but more specifically we'll focus on you, as you carry out your ministry as a Bearer of God's Healing Presence. I planned this to consist of three talks, each relating to a different aspect of this overall theme.

In our first session, we'll look briefly at ourselves, and then look beyond ourselves to those we serve, as we try to comprehend the breadth of their physical, mental and spiritual needs.

In our second session we'll jump right into the Gospel and try to understand, if only partially, what Jesus teaches us about healing.

And in our third session, we'll address the gifts that God offers to those you visit - the gift of Himself, His Eucharistic Healing Presence, and the gift of His Church - and how these gifts must change both you and those you serve.

I also hope to reserve a little time toward the end of our morning to address a variety of issues: 
  • Ideas or approaches you'd like to share with the rest of us;
  • Questions or difficulties you've encountered, and solutions you've come up with;
  • And anything else that relates to how we carry out the work our ministry.
And so I hope this morning will prove valuable, and will help you as you care for God's people, often His most forgotten people.

You are ministers of Word, and Grace, and Healing; you are messengers of God's Presence in the world. And this work you do - God's Work - is not a choice you make...not at all. It is a ministry, and therefore it is a calling. Just as Jesus called His Apostles, just as He called Paul, so He has called you.

In so many ways your calling is unique - one of spiritual and physical healing. God has called you to carry His Son to a world in need of healing. Like Mary, you are a Christ-Bearer, one whose ministry must "magnify the Lord."

Like John the Baptist, you are called to point to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the introduce Him to those in need of His Presence. Like John you are sent before the Messiah, the Christ, so you too can say to those you serve, "Here He is...He must increase; you and I must decrease."

And like Peter and Paul and the Apostles, you are called to carry the Church itself to those unable to step through these doors. The Church isn't a building. It's not the Vatican, or the cathedral in Orlando, or St. Vincent de the Church is you, and me, and all the baptized. It's the apostolic succession of bishops and popes. It's all those who came before us and those who will come after.

This is your calling, brothers and sisters, the ministry with which God has blessed you - one that should drive you to your knees daily in thanksgiving and humility.

And so, humbled by our call and filled with thanksgiving, let's begin.


"Again, Good morning, Ministers of Healing!"

That's what you are, you know. Indeed, you are Ministers of Healing, for you take God's healing Presence to His people. This is what we'll be talking about today as we explore just a little piece of this wonderful and very central aspect of your ministry.

In some respects this title - Minister of Healing - is really a much better, more appropriate and descriptive title than the one you've been given. Just think about it: Minister to the Sick. It sounds so very limited, doesn't it?

Some of those you visit are indeed sick, whether in the hospital, a nursing facility, or at home. In truth, though, not everyone you visit suffers from physical or mental illness. Some are progressively or permanently disabled and unable to drive to Mass. But I assure you, they would not like to be called "sick."

Others are recovering from surgery or going through a period of rehabilitation, but they're certainly not physically sick.

And of course there are those who suffer from dementia, Alzheimer's, or other mental afflictions. Indeed, some of these, as their mental condition deteriorates, remain in remarkably good physical condition.

And some, like so many in our local community, are simply old and no longer as mobile as they once were. But they too are not sick, unless you consider old age an illness.

Yes, in our ministry we're often confronted by a wide variety of conditions, both physical and mental. But they're not all illnesses, are they? At least not in the way we normally think of illness.

But do you know something? Every person you visit, every person who accepts the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus Christ from you, and even the one who can't or won't accept it, is in need of healing. No exceptions. No one is exempt. You and I and those we visit might not need physical healing every day, but every single one of us needs to be healed...because we are all sinners.

And so, as we progress through the morning, I'd like you to keep that truth uppermost in your mind.

We are all sinners in need of healing.

I'll be repeating that, probably more often than you like.
We are all sinners in need of healing.
Whenever possible, I like to keep things simple. It isn't always easy; and those who know me also know that I can very quickly get swallowed up in the muddy details. I'll try to avoid that today.

Quite simply, then, my focus this morning will be on the needs of those we visit and what God brings to them through us. And in bringing this into focus I hope to expand both your understanding of this ministry and your concept of whom we, as Christians, are called to serve.

Of course, when you're seeking God's will in your life, I can think of no better place to turn than to His Word. So let's go right to the Gospel, specifically Matthew's Gospel, to that wonderfully scary passage where Jesus depicts the Last Judgment - Mt 25:31-46.


"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?' And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'

Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'

Then they also will answer, `Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?'

Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.' And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."


Now, I won't try to second-guess God - which in itself is sinfully presumptuous - by telling Him how He should weigh our sheepfulness against our goatfulness. Instead let's just look at what Jesus says He expects of us. You all heard it.

Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. What better food and drink to give to those who hunger and thirst than the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ?

Welcome the stranger. So many in our communities are strangers in need of welcome. Alone, separated from family, without friends, they live lives of desperate loneliness.

Clothe the naked. We might not encounter the naked all that often, but believe me, there are many here in central Florida in need of a winter coat or a good pair of shoes.

Visit the sick - We'll certainly not ignore them today - and the imprisoned. Some of you might be involved in prison ministry, but you don't need to go to the Federal Prison in Coleman to encounter the imprisoned. Many of those you visit are effectively imprisoned in their homes, unable to leave, and  rarely visited.

These are all, of course, elements of the Corporal Works of Mercy, all a part of the ministry to which God has called you.

And did you notice that in our Gospel passage both the righteous and the wicked seem clueless, baffled by Jesus' references to Himself? Neither, really, had recognized Him in the world.

That should lead us to question our own motives. Why do we carry out this ministry?

Is it to please ourselves? To make us feel better about ourselves? To convince ourselves we're good people.

Is it to do good in the world? To right the wrongs we encounter?

Is it to place a check-mark in a box? "Well, I guess I should do something in the Church. Might as well visit the sick."

Or is it to serve Jesus Christ?

Jesus is pretty clear, isn't He? He ties care for others, the need to heal others, to care for Jesus Himself. By serving those who suffer, we serve Him who suffered for our salvation. From this we come to realize that the two great commandments - love of God and love of neighbor - are truly inseparable.

Every person we encounter bears Jesus' own face, and in every sufferer we come to know our suffering Savior. Perhaps Pope St. John Paul said it best:
"Christ said, 'You did it to me.' He Himself is the one who in each individual experiences love; He Himself is the one who receives help...He Himself is present in this suffering person, since His salvific suffering has been opened once and for all to every human suffering" [Salvifici Doloris, VII:29].
It's through the power of the Holy Spirit, brothers and sisters, that we are united to Jesus and allowed to participate in His saving Cross.  It's through this that we come to know Him and serve Him in our suffering neighbors. You want to know Jesus Christ? Then get to know those you serve in His name. Just as Jesus heals a broken world from the Cross, so too do you carry His healing Presence to those you visit.

The trouble is, we allow our titles to limit our thinking. "I'm a Minister to the Sick," we say to ourselves, without considering all those others in need of God's Presence and, yes, in need of our presence.

Saint Teresa of Calcutta pointed this out to us in her own unique way when she wrote:

Jesus is the hungry to be fed.
Jesus is the thirsty to be satisfied.
Jesus is the naked to be clothed.
Jesus is the homeless to be taken in.
Jesus is the sick to be healed.
Jesus is the lonely to be loved.
Jesus is the unwanted to be wanted.
Jesus is the leper to wash His wounds.
Jesus is the beggar to give Him a smile.
Jesus is the drunkard to listen to Him.
Jesus is the mentally ill to protect Him.
Jesus is the little one to embrace Him.
Jesus is the blind to lead Him.
Jesus is the speechless to speak to Him.
Jesus is the crippled to walk with Him.
Jesus is the drug addict to befriend Him.
Jesus is the prostitute to remove from danger and befriend Her.
Jesus is the prisoner to be visited.
Jesus is the old to be served.

There's no limit is there?

I recall once accompanying one our soup kitchen drivers as he delivered food to the poor. When we arrived at one elderly woman's dilapidated mobile home she invited us in, said "Hi" to the driver and then looked at me and said, "Who's he?"

The driver said, "Oh that's the soup kitchen president. He's just riding along with me today."

She laughed and said, "La-de-dah, the president." Then she added, "I used to be a hooker, but not any more. I'm a good girl now."

So I just said, "Well, I'm glad to hear it. I'm still trying to be good." That broke the ice.

Yes, folks, we're called to serve all, even those the world despises. We're called to serve those who make us uncomfortable, those who irritate us, those who sometimes even scare us.

Some years ago, back in my Navy days, I was on a US Marine Corps base and saw a bumper sticker that read, "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out."

Now before you get all aflutter about it, as someone who spent many years in the military, let me say that I understood the sentiment. When everyone you see, everyone around you, is shooting at you, such a statement becomes more understandable.

And, of course, crude as it was, it was a joke - perhaps not meant for pleasant society, but a joke nevertheless.

But, you know, with only a single modification, it can serve us well in our ministry. And so let's rewrite it:

"Love them all and let God sort them out."
You see, we don't do the sorting; we are not to judge. God simply calls us to love.

How blessed you are to realize that as you care for others you care for Jesus Himself. And here we encounter another Gospel paradox: when we keep all for ourselves in this life, we lose our lives eternally; and in giving ourselves away to sufferers, we gain everything. You see, that's what the healer must do. Yes, you must give the other Christ's sacramental Presence, but you must also give yourself.

Do we do that? Or has the practice of our ministry become "procedural" - a repetitive event - follow the rite...

Hello. How are you today?...Our Father, who art in heaven...Behold the Lamb of God...The Body of Christ...God bless you and have a great day...See you next week....Amen.
Let's return to our original thought, the one I told you to keep in mind. Does anyone remember?

We are all sinners in need of healing.
Yes, indeed, but to be a true healers, you and I must turn first to the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit does God's work in the world.

Moved by the Holy Spirit you can invite the other to experience new freedom in his or her life, to lead the other to forgiveness - a forgiveness that so often needs to be self-forgiveness.

Diane and I work as hospital chaplains and once or twice a month we're assigned to a 24-hour on-call ministry. We given a list of all the new admissions and spend several hours trying to visit as many as possible. We visit all regardless of their religious affiliation.

One morning, after we introduced ourselves to a patient, he said, "Well, I was raised a Catholic but I haven't been to church in over 50 years. And believe me, in that time I've done so much bad stuff God wouldn't even look at me."

So Diane and I spoke to him about God's love for him and God's mercy and God's total forgiveness. And then we asked if he'd like to be forgiven, if he'd like to be right with God once again. He couldn't believe it was possible, but we convinced him otherwise.

All he needed was the grace of a good confession and then the Eucharist would fill him with God's healing Presence. Like so many he first had to forgive himself before he could accept and experience God's forgiveness and the healing that follows.

On the day I was ordained a deacon, the bishop looked out at us, and reminded us that we are called to preach, to teach, and to heal.

I can recall thinking...well, okay, I can handle the preaching and teaching part, but how do I go about this healing thing?  Then I had a moment of terror. Maybe I should have thought about this before today, the day of my ordination.

It took me a long time in the trenches before I had even a clue, and I'm still a healer in training. Believe me, it's been a very long apprenticeship, over 20 years. And often enough I can't tell the successes from the failures, and so I simply let God handle it.
"Love them all and let God sort them out."
Let me tell you a story...

Willie came to the Wildwood Soup Kitchen every day, always among the first to arrive, sometimes two or three hours before we actually began serving our daily meal. He'd always ask for a cup of coffee and if I had a few minutes, I'd sit down across the table from him and we'd chat.

I won't call it a conversation, because Willie was rarely sober, and to be honest, I could understand only about a third of what he said. But we'd talk anyway. We'd talk about God and about heaven and about life and death and about sin and forgiveness. For some reason Willie seemed to think I was the pastor of the Presbyterian church where the soup kitchen is located. And no matter what I said, I couldn't convince him otherwise.

One day I finally said, "No, Willie, I'm a Catholic deacon, over at St. Vincent de Paul's Church."  And he just looked at me, shook his said, and said, "Funny they'd make you pastor here."

Anyway, that was our little ritual every Thursday morning for a year or so. One Thursday morning he asked me if I thought he'd go to heaven. I asked him if he loved the Lord, and he said, "Oh, yes."

And are you sorry for your sins, Willie?" And he said again, "Oh, yes."

So I just said, "You'll be fine, sir."

A few weeks later, early one frosty morning, they found Willie lying in the bushes outside the soup kitchen. He had died during the night. That was about ten winters ago.

You know, I probably learned more about Jesus Christ from Willie than from all the theologians I've heard and read and studied. You see, he had grasped the truth. He knew he was a sinner in need of forgiveness.

In this age when no one wants to take responsibility for anything, when it's always someone else's fault, or society's fault, or our genes' fault, this ragged man, suffering from alcoholism and who knew what else, realized he had sinned and sought forgiveness.

In God's eyes, if not the eyes of the world, Willie was eminently lovable. That's how God sees all of us when we recognize our responsibility for our actions and seek forgiveness. He sees us as lovable. Of course, He loves us anyway, and often enough He loves us into repentance and forgiveness.

Willie neither asked for nor received a physical healing, but God's healing power, His love and mercy, reached out and touched the heart of that man as he faced eternity.
It's important to realize that the healing we need, the healing God offers us, might be something very different from the healing we want.

You know, if you sat down tonight and read all four Gospels from beginning to end, you'd encounter Jesus' healing power on dozens of occasions. But those are just the healing events about which Matthew, Mark, Luke and John provide details. The Gospels are also filled with comments such as this from Matthew 9:
"Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity." [Mt 9:35]
Did you catch that? "...every disease and every infirmity."

Jesus' healing knew no limits, did it? How many did He heal? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? We don't know, do we? But nowhere in the Gospel did He refuse to heal someone.

And so I thought, as healers (and healees), we might want to take a lessons from the Great Healer, and from those he healed, by making a stop in the pages of the Gospel.

But before we do that, let's first think about our ministry and those we are called to serve.

Note: At this point, I provided the participants with the following questions asking them to discuss them in their small groups.

  1.  How did you become a Minister to the Sick? How did God call you? Describe your response.
  2. Has your understanding of this ministry, your calling, changed over time? How?
  3. What (or who) are the greatest challenges you encounter in this ministry?
  4. How have you changed since you became a Minister to the Sick?

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