Illness configures us more
intimately with Christ
Michael C. Barber, SJ
When I was chaplain to the 23rd Marine Regiment in San Bruno, there was a Marine who was being inspected one day. The Marines were lined up in formation, and the inspecting officer was going through the ranks. The Marine's uniform was perfect, but on the side of his neck there was a lump, a growth, something that didn't look right. The major said, "Corporal, what is that on your neck?" The corporal answered, "It's nothing, sir." The major asked, "Did you go see the doctor about that?" The Corporal replied "Yes, sir, I went to the doctor but the doctor says it's nothing."
The major looked at him and said, "I order you to go to another doctor and get it looked at." So he did, and it was cancer. The corporal was 21 years old. He had been on a tour in Iraq and had returned safe, without a scratch on him, and here he had cancer. He immediately started a round of surgeries, treatments, chemotherapy, radiation — everything. But the cancer kept spreading.
The Marine Corps had him treated at Stanford University Hospital. I remember going with him to one of his surgeries because neither his mother nor his father would go with him or have anything to do with him.
I was there one morning when he woke up from one of his surgeries. His head was covered with bandages. They had to take out his glands that provide taste and smell, so he couldn't taste or smell anything. He was all bandaged up and we were talking when into the hospital room came a small squad of Marines from his unit to visit him.
They were looking all around, and their first question to him was, "Where are all the pretty nurses?" And he replied, "Oh, I thought you came to visit me." They said "Oh, yeah …"
And they asked him, "Can we go down and get you a Coke and some potato chips?" and he said "Yes, I'm hungry." Then they asked if he wanted plain or barbecue chips, and he told them that he could no longer taste the difference. 21 years old.
You can easily ask, if you get cancer or you get any kind of sickness, "Why me?" "Why me?" "Why me, and not the person next to me?"
That's a perfectly normal question to ask the Lord, "Why me?" "Why do I get this?" "Why does it have to happen to me?"
And it's OK, certainly almost expected, in the Catholic faith, for you to pray for a cure. "Please pray for me." "Father, please bless me." "Father, can I have the anointing of the sick?" "Father, can you help me go to Lourdes with the Order of Malta so I can ask the Blessed Mother to cure me?" "Father I want to go to Guadalupe and pray to our Blessed Mother for healing."
That is perfectly natural and expected for members of the Catholic faith. And we pray that way because the sick went to Jesus and he cured them. He spent most of his time going around curing people, whether they were lepers or had blood discharges or they were lame or blind. That was the center of his ministry.
I often wish I could be like Jesus as a priest, that everyone I would anoint or bless would be healed. And I ask the Lord, "Jesus, help me. If you will, please cure this person." And sometimes they improve ... and sometimes not.
Our Lord himself at the agony in the garden, did not want to die or to be crucified. Remember what he said: "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me." But then he quickly added, "But not my will, but thine be done." So it's OK to ask, "Lord, cure me, but if not, your will be done."
And so if you are not cured, what does that mean? It means you are even more intimately configured to Christ, I would say, than I am — than a priest or a bishop. How so? Because we teach that the Church is the Body of Christ.
And when you are sick, or you have surgery, or you have cancer, or you have lost a limb, you become the wounds on the Body of Christ.
You might ask, "When did I sign up for that?" We all signed up for it at our baptism. The first thing the priest did before he poured water on you and baptized you, he traced the cross on your forehead. Every time we come into the church what do we do? We bless ourselves; we make a cross on ourselves. We bear in our bodies the cross of Christ. And some of us bear it more closely than others.
The late Cardinal John O'Connor was archbishop of New York. He used to go to hospitals and visit people who were incurable, who were dying or paralyzed, and he would tell each person this: by your suffering, you are doing more than I am as cardinal for the salvation of souls in our diocese.
How? Because you are more closely configured to Christ's Body. You are mounting the cross with Christ. So for every one of you who is reading this, who is Catholic, who has been baptized, and who also bears a sickness — or a wound — or a cancer — or whatever it is that you are suffering, I say to you "Thank you for taking part with Christ in the salvation of souls in the Diocese of Oakland!"
My friend the Marine who was diagnosed with cancer thought, "I better make plans for the future" (and if you've got cancer, you make BIG plans). He asked me, "Father Barber, I want to become Catholic." (He didn't belong to any religion).
I said "OK, I'll give you a book on the faith, and you read the book, see if that's what you want to sign up for. Then I'll baptize you." He said, "I don't need any book. I want to be what you and the colonel are." (The regimental colonel happened to be Catholic, had visited the Marine every day and offered to take the lad into his home to recover from his surgery.)
I gave that young Marine the sacraments of Baptism, First Confession, First Communion, Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick — all in one day. He died a few months later, fortified with the rites of Holy Mother Church. He became configured to Christ through his baptism — and through the cross of cancer.
One last thing. In the Gospel of Luke we read how Mary, when notified by the angel that she would become the Mother of God, was also told that her cousin Elizabeth was pregnant. As soon as Mary heard that someone needed her, she left immediately and went to her cousin's house to help her in preparing to give birth to her baby. Now, if Mary goes to the immediate help of a pregnant woman, how much more will she come to someone who is suffering an illness or a disease or is in deep pain. How much more!
On my little iPhone that I keep next to my bed, early every morning it dings because I have someone in Rome who emails me the Pope's homily from his morning Mass. And this morning he had something very nice to say about Mary that I want to share with you:
"Our Lady is always close to us. She looks upon each one of us with maternal love and accompanies us always on our journey. Do not hesitate to turn to her for every need, especially when the burden of life, with all its problems, makes itself felt." Amen!
(This was Bishop Barber's homily for the World Day of the Sick Mass on Feb. 8.)
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