The health care ministry of the Catholic Church is – or at least ought to be – an extension of the health care ministry of Jesus Christ. In this reflection and in those to follow, we will look at the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, how that ministry is continued in his Church and how we ourselves can participate in Jesus’ ongoing work of healing.
We begin by examining the healing work of Jesus that was such a prominent part of his public ministry. It’s shocking, really, to see just how much of Jesus’ brief public ministry – the three short years between his baptism in the Jordan river and his death on the cross – is taken up with healing the sick. By my unofficial count, there are 95 references in the Gospels to Jesus’ healings. Of these, 19 speak of Jesus curing people of demonic possession. Five are accounts of Jesus raising the dead: the raising of Lazarus in John 11, the raising of the son of the widow of Nain in Luke 7, and three accounts of the raising of the daughter of Jairus in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The majority of these accounts, however, are of Jesus curing ordinary physical illness: fever, blindness, paralysis, leprosy, epilepsy, and so on. In many of these accounts, multiple people are healed, like the ten lepers in Luke 17. Many other passages refer to mass healings, like when Mark relates that Jesus “cured many who were sick with various diseases, and he drove out many demons” (Mark 1:34) or when Matthew speaks of Jesus “healing every disease and illness among the people.” (Matt 4:23).
In some places, the gospels also record Jesus’ motivation for healing. Matthew writes, “When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” (Matt 14:14) And again, “Moved with pity, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him.” (Matt 20:34). The Greek word that is translated in these passages as “moved with pity” comes from a word that means “heart” or “inmost self.” What Matthew is saying is that Jesus is shaken to the core by the sight of his fellow human beings in sickness and distress. Jesus responds to human brokenness combining the depth of his human emotion with the height of divine love. Here is the Sacred Heart of Jesus on display. Fully man, he is struck to the heart by human misery; fully God, he responds to that misery with divine mercy.
Saint Augustine, commenting on another encounter between Jesus and a person in distress – the woman caught in adultery – captures the compassion of Christ in a beautiful Latin turn of phrase: relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia (two were left, the miserable one and mercy). This is the situation whenever Jesus encounters the sick and the suffering. Mercy itself is brought face to face with the misery of human wretchedness. This is the healing relationship that Jesus entered into with countless sick, disabled, dying and distressed human beings. His is the human face of God’s mercy, the love of God beating in a human heart. This is where Jesus’ healings come from: the heart that is at once animated by God’s love and profoundly touched by human pain.
The consequences for us are clear. If Jesus, who is our master and our model, went to such great lengths to heal the sick, then we should do so as well. Furthermore, we should work to heal the sick from the same motive that moved the heart of Jesus. We should allow ourselves to be struck to the core, touched in our innermost being by the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. We, who have encountered the merciful love of God in Jesus Christ, should pray that He might fill our hearts with that same mercy so that we can extend Christ’s love to those in our care.
The health care ministry in which we are engaged, whether as practitioners of the health care professions or as Christian ministers in a health care setting, is to be an extension of the health care ministry of Jesus. In order for that to happen, we need to enter into the kind of healing relationships that Jesus established with every suffering person he encountered. We must allow the divine misericordia, made flesh in the heart of Jesus, to fill our hearts with the mercy that turns with tender love toward the misera of our brothers and sisters in distress.