Illness and suffering are part of life's trials that may be considered entirely negative.
Yet, at the same time, good can come from this evil. Jesus showed us the way in this field. Yesterday, at the General Audience, the Holy Father reminded us precisely this: for Jesus, healing came before the law, despite the sacredness of the Sabbath repose. Jesus sent his disciples to do the same work. Visit the sick, accompany them, share the suffering of their illness, and let them feel that they are not alone but have a brother or sister next to them: this is the task of the Church, always.
If this task is so important for the Church, as She follows in Christ's footsteps, it is even more so for the family, this small "domestic church," where we feel love and tenderness in everyday life. Pope Francis uses a meaningful expression when he talks about the family as "the closest hospital." Doctors know very well that, if the family does its job as "house doctor," much weight is taken off him. The family offers the best conditions for the ill member's recovery, by not only guaranteeing attentive treatment, but also ensuring that it is applied with the affection, sympathy, and compassion that are the strongest means of care for the sick.
Another word used by the Pope touched us. When he spoke of the ''hidden heroism" of the family confronted by the illness of a member. What is true for the mother who sleeps only two hours because her little child is ill, is also true for the daughter or son who, night and day, often for years, accompanies a mother or father who is suffering, for example, from the Alzheimer's disease. In such cases, heroism is indeed hidden daily life, so much so that one can really speak about "a man going beyond his limits."
This has two very concrete implications: to begin with, the family is the first school of solidarity and humanity, and this school becomes even more persuasive in times of trial, illness, and shared suffering. It is unfortunately true that illness and suffering can lead to the temptation of abandoning, rejecting, and breaking the solidarity within the family—and we saw this to a great extent in the case of AIDS. However, generally, illness, suffering, and hardships reinforce family ties for the better not only of the family, but also of society. There is a sensitivity to a brother's illness that should enter, through the example of the family, into a child's heart from the first years of his life. Otherwise, one runs the risk of having sons and daughters who are "anesthetized" to the suffering of others—as the Pope stressed—with the result of an increasingly individualistic society that gradually becomes harsher and where the sacred duty of compassion will be "professionalized" in the specialized agencies, possibly with the help of robots. Is this perhaps not what the famous "transhumanism" of the "improved" man promises us?
The second implication—also clearly emphasized by the Holy Father—is that, during times of hardship due to illness, the family should not be left alone. This, in fact, is the great problem in today's society, especially in big cities, where people tend to ignore each other, even when they live in the same building. Here, we find another need, that of solidarity from family to family, a solidarity that children have to learn very quickly from the example of their parents. The Christian community has, in this respect, a great responsibility today, if it wants to be faithful to Christ. There are beautiful experiences in the parishes of solidarity in the face of illness or the suffering of a community member. This solidarity must be evident in common prayer, and it should be manifested concretely by visits at home and mutual aid—for example, one could allow a daughter or a son to take a day or even a few days off, away from home, by caring for the grandmother or grandfather with Alzheimer's during this time. Such solidarity lived concretely in a parish can give a new life, a valuable boost to the community.
Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau
Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers
Director Health Pastoral Care Diocese of Grenoble (France)