On World Day of the Sick last year, it was still business and life as usual. Remember that innocent time, before terms like “coronavirus,” “PPE” and “physical distancing” entered our daily vocabulary? We didn’t think twice about being in a crowd. We hugged the people we love without worrying about infecting anyone. The virus was half a world away, and we thought it didn’t really affect us.
And now here we are, marking World Day of the Sick in 2021. It’s a lot more personal this year. We all know the grim statistics: more than 105 million confirmed cases; more than 2.1 million deaths. A second wave, with a third one to come. Vaccines, but not enough yet. People we know have had COVID, or they know someone who has had it. Have we ever been more aware of those who are sick here at home and around the world?
I hope that the pandemic has taught us an important thing: the pressing need for compassion and care for the sick. A serious illness makes us vulnerable in so many ways. Our independence is suddenly shaky; we may need extra support or even hospitalization. We may not be able to work or take care of our family. We may be short of money. We feel like a burden.
For most of us, this experience is temporary. With time and treatment, we return to our regular state of health. But for others, life revolves around their illness. Their need for help is ongoing. They may feel discouraged or even be in despair. Where can they find strength and hope at such a time?
One source of comfort is our faith. It is fitting that World Day of the Sick takes place on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which marks the 18 appearances that the Blessed Virgin Mary made to Bernadette Soubirous, a young teenage girl in Lourdes, France, in 1858. As we know, Lourdes grew into an international pilgrimage site after those appearances were recognized by the Church – in normal times, the shrine attracts around six million visitors per year who are in search of healing. (For those who cannot visit in person, the shrine offers a virtual tour.) It has documented more than 7,000 cases of unexplained cures; the Church has recognized 70 of them as miraculous.
Bernadette Soubirous’ story has been told through various media over the decades. Franz Werfel’s 1941 novel based on her life became a popular 1943 Hollywood movie, The Song of Bernadette, starring a young Jennifer Jones – you can watch it on YouTube. Bernadette herself was canonized in 1933, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Her story echoes down through the years, inspiring countless people to move forward in faith even when those around them cannot understand it.
Pope Francis’ message for this year’s World Day of the Sick ends with these words, which we can use as our own prayer today and every day, especially during this time of pandemic:
Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us!
Anne Louise Mahoney, Managing Editor, Novalis