Homily by H.E. the Apostolic Nuncio
It was a different world nine hundred years ago. Abelard was founding the first of the universities and Middle English was just starting to develop. The new form of architecture was called Gothic and the new Council being implemented was Lateran I.
And it was from the Lateran Palace, then the residence of Pope Paschal II that a decree was promulgated, Pie Postulatio Voluntatis creating the “hospitaller fraternity” of Jerusalem, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.
In your first days as an order you responded to the consecration of Blessed Gérard to the service of those whom everyone else has forgotten. So you cared for the sick of Jerusalem, and later the pilgrims to that Holy Land. In the past two centuries, that charism has been transformed to assisting the sick and the poor of the entire world.
All of this springs from your commitment to the model of John the Baptist, who left all in order to radically commit himself to washing away that which brings death and fostering life through the waters of Baptism. So too, you share in his life through the establishment of hospitals and health-care institutes, orphanages and soup kitchens an action which, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “is not mere philanthropy, but an effective expression and a living testimony of evangelical love.”
This is how you understand your motto: Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum (Defence of the faith and assistance to the poor), echoed in the words of the Psalmist: “When the poor one called out, the LORD heard, and from all his distress he saved him.”
You remind us that we need the poor, and we need the sick.
The sick woman or man reminds me what is truly important and truly lasting: only faith, only hope, and only love. That’s hard to convince me of when I’m lecturing in front of a Church full of nice people (I’m in control), or ministering the sick (I’m in control), or going to the bank (I’m in control).
But the sick remind me that this voice will grow weak in not so many years and this mind will grow dim. These hands will begin to shake and sometime this heart will cease to beat. In the end, this body will stop working entirely. And I, who spend most of my waking moments in denial, need to be with sick people who remind me of the essential or higher things. Faith, Hope, and Love. It’s all that really matters. It’s all that really lasts.
And we need the Order of Malta to remind us of what the Church teaches about sickness and suffering, about poverty and abandonment. For while suffering and illness have always been among the greatest problems that trouble the human spirit and Christians feel and experience pain as do all other people; yet faith helps the sick Christian to grasp more deeply the mystery of suffering and bear his pain with greater courage. From Christ’s words he knows that sickness has meaning and value for his own salvation and for the salvation of the world. He also knows that Christ, who during his life often visited and healed the sick, loves them in their illness.
So we stand with the sick person, with the poor, with the abandoned, with those whose rights are trampled upon and we encourage them, in the words of the Church’s Rites for Pastoral care of the Sick, to “fight strenuously against all sickness and carefully seek the blessings of good health, so that we may fulfill our role in human society and in the Church.”
In other words, while sickness and suffering can have meaning, God does not expect us to roll over and die. Sickness and suffering keeps me from going to Church, from feeding the poor, from preaching the Gospel, and from visiting the others who are sick! Sickness is not something to be enjoyed, but to struggle against. Like the prisoner locked in a dungeon, the sick and suffering person seeks to break the chains of the illness that confines him and keeps him from getting on with life.
So, with this Holy Order, the sick person, the poor and the abandoned is not alone. Rather they are accompanied by you in their struggle. You teach us that the fight against sickness and poverty is a holy struggle, which sanctifies those who undertake this noble work in extraordinary and unexpected ways. You’ve seen that, time and time again. Luke was not the last health care worker to become a saint.
There’s not a single member of the Church who does not have a role to play in this great drama. Not just as a support to family and friends, but (like Jesus) as a friend of the sick, the lonely and the excluded. As one who seeks them out in hospitals and nursing homes, in prisons and in the slums. As one who does not flee from his own fear and doubts, but through the smells, the sights and the fears goes to the sick man and makes him strong, knowing that Christ will judge him on the last day.
I was sick and you did not visit me. Be consigned to the everlasting fire. Rather strong words. And a rather clear teaching about our responsibility to fight at the side of the sick man in his mortal struggle.
And here is where your motto meets your charism Tuitio fidei et obsequium pauperum: When faith meets the needs of the poor and the sick, we see their suffering as a participation in the Passion of Christ. For sometimes the cancer will not remit, the heart will not get stronger, the disease cannot be cured. On one day, each one of us will find that we are sicker and sicker and that soon we will die. At the end nobody escapes suffering, loneliness and finally death.
So, what do you say on that day: “that we’ve lost the battle?” Far from it! For, as the preface for martyrs tells us, God chooses the weak and makes them strong in Christ. As Saint Francis of Assisi remind us, it is in our weakness that we are strong, in our littleness that we are great, in our powerlessness that we know true power. Or in the words of the Rite for Pastoral Care of the Sick: “Christ himself, who is without sin, in fulfilling the words of Isaiah took on all the wounds of his passion and shared in all human pain (see Isaiah 53: 4-5). Christ is still pained and tormented in his members, made like him. We should always be prepared to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the salvation of the world…”
It is a noble work you embrace as a Knight of Malta, in faith and love of the poor and the sick. And standing testimony to it are 900 years of Knights whose hearts and lives have been a home for the poor and the sick, standing testimony to it are those who sit before me today…and standing testimony to it are all the good works which await, all the manifestations of the presence of Christ in the poor and the sick who await your consolation, your presence and your love.
“May the Holy Virgin, Our Lady of Philermos, support your plans and projects with her maternal protection; may your heavenly protectors Saint John the Baptist and Blessed Gérard, as well as the saints and blesseds of the Order, accompany you with their intercession.” Amen.