Care for the Sick and the Fathers of the Church
1. Whence Evil
The subject of this paper leads us to think about
events which are very far-away, where our memory and human history do not reach.
And the tale which comes to us, in addition to the innate drama of every man, is
of a religious or mythological character. By natural instinct man seeks stable
and integrated happiness, he continues to hope for it. But despite this innate
vocation, this divine dream, he is that being o n the earth which can suffer
both physically and spiritually. The reconciliation of these two real and
practical tendencies, the need for happiness and its denial, is the permanent
drama of man.
Those who profess a faith in an absolute Being in their way
of thinking about existence, a Being who is transcendent, infinitely perfect,
the sole cause of the universe and of all created things, can but ask themselves
about a fundamental question when they are faced with pain. This question
relates to the grea t difficulty we face in crossing a frontier to enter into an
area of a metaphysical and mysterious character which touches the responsibility
of God: "where does the evil come from of which man, contradicted by an
instinct to happiness, is the principal victim? And yet, in actual fact, the
finger which made him offers all the guarantees we could need!"
would like to know how to translate into two Michelangelo-style frescoes that
description of the world and of man (who is its principal and mos t responsible
tenant) which St. Augustine makes in the City of God, a distinction
between beauty and horror of the world of which man is the subject.
world (where our life takes place!) when observed from the point of view of the
mineral, vegetable, animal and spiritual worlds, is in itself an enchanting
harmony and beauty. And man should have enjoyed his friendship with God in
tranquillity, until the point when he was by his own wish received into his
St. Augustine s peaks in the following way about the
"So great is the rational beauty of the human body, and
even of the lower and less noble parts, that they are considered pleasant and
superior to any other visible form according to the judgment of the spirit of
the eyes which are used. In painstaking fashion certain physicians called
anatomists, moved by the harmony of the human body, have dissected its limbs
to see if such limbs are made for a function or for beauty. None of these
parts has a u seful function without at the same time having its own beauty."
Augustine concludes by referring to the wonders of the human mind, its
technological achievements (even during his own times), and its artistic
production in the sphere of literature, in sculpture and painting. "A day
will come." he asserts, "when we will enjoy each other"s beauty
alone."(City of God, XXII, 24, 22).
But such beauty and the
enjoyment of such beauty is in permanent contrast with the historical reality
which man, above all other creatures, perceives and suffers. The contradiction
between the beauty which informs the creation, which is given for man's
enjoyment, and the pollution in which man is immersed, is very striking. Man is
both the compelled creator of this contradiction and its victim. However much we
may be materialists, we cannot accept the idea of being mere toys which are
"Res sacra miser!" exclaimed Seneca: he who
suffers in body or soul is a sacred being. That is to say, he is worthy of
respect, pity, and solidarity.
It is difficult to
answer this question, and it has proved an impassable obstacle for many spirits.
And not only for the spirit of St. Augustine who for many years embraced the
Manichean doctrine, an approach which perceives two princes locked in struggle:
the prince of good and the prince of evil, light and darkness, the spirit and
matter. Desperate in his search for the truth, he ended up by concluding that if
one begins with the ex perience of evil in the world, one finishes by being
pessimistic or skeptical.
If God is infinite goodness, an ocean in which
everybody is born and everybody is enveloped, and if the created being is
immersed in that ocean like a sponge, then why-St. Augustine pondered-is this
sponge so infused with pollution? Where did it absorb it from? At the outset he
drew near to the bible (the sin of free man against God the creator, rebellion
of his liberty to be master of an independent happiness without God);
rationalism, pride; lack of humility and reasonableness; rejection of the
supernatural and of grace-all of these elements led him to perceive the bible as
a collection of tales of little literary merit!
At a very young age he
abandoned the Christian faith of his mother Monica.
The recovery of these
values was a very arduous process for St. Augustine. It was the outcome of
reading the works of non-Christian philosophers: Cicero (who in one of his works
demonstrated the emptiness of earthly values an d proposed spiritual values
which were immutable and transcendental); Plotinus who followed Plato in
demonstrating the spirituality, the absolute, and the infinite goodness of God.
Plotinus explained evil not as a substance but as the absence of substance, and
in more specific terms a wrongful lack of the presence of God (Conf. VII, 10,
16, "And I saw a light...").
He then read the works of
Ambrose who was at first read out of a sense of literary taste and because of
his Latin eloquence which m ade him a kind of second Cicero. St. Augustine then
read him because of a deep interest in his biblical preaching. He then went on
to the letters of St. Paul. The letter to the Romans (pain and death have
entered the world through the sin of free man) was suggested to him by the
mysterious voice of youth ("Take it and read it") and provoked
in him the experience of being thunderstruck by grace. It also produced his
immediate conversion to Christianity in the house of his garden in Milan.
I sa id previously, the intense and difficult path taken by St. Augustine was
the path trodden by many spirits, including those who were intellectually and
morally chosen. But it was also, I might observe, the path taken by each one of
That initial rebellion which was a very serious act of personal
wrongdoing by those who carried it out was a test. It was a way of seeing
whether the free will of man would accept the supremacy of a personal and
liberal God, his free gift. It was a test to see if man woul d remain forever on
the side of God. That rebellion is bequeathed to human descendants like a void,
a pathological inheritance, a lost wealth which cannot be regained and which has
left a deep wound within the whole organism. In this process it has generated
pride, ignorance, superficiality, and a lack of care in inquiring into the
distant and real cause of impoverishment and unhappiness. If man is the created
being of God he could but be created in happiness and for happiness.
it is that it neces sary to make a diagnosis of this original evil, as one does
for every evil. That is to say through philosophical inquiry, through the
acceptance of the instruction of supernatural revelation. (Plato and human
navigation: the sail, the oar..."unless one has a safer means of
transport which is divine revelation." Cf. Phaidon 85A/86B).
the radical evil suffered by man is the fault of initial pride is not a doctrine
of the bible alone where there is indeed a description of our mysterious condit
ion. It belongs to all cultures, to all religions, and to all mythologies. In
the autumn of the year 385 AD St. Augustine decided to read the Holy Scriptures
for a second time, texts which he had deemed unworthy of his literary
He was obliged to do this because of a moral and religious
crisis, and he engaged in his task with humility. He proceeded to define the
bible as a masterpiece of instruction and a picture-gallery with a poor
entrance. But to cross the threshold-what artistic splendor !
describes the prohibition about eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil.
Adam, with Eve, disobeyed.
St. Paul comments: because of the sin of one
person, disorder, evils and death entered the world....
There is a law in my
flesh which is in opposition to the law of my spirit. As a result I do not do
what I would like to do, but what I would not like to do.... Poor me! Who can
free me from this body of death?
The reply he received was:
My grace should be enoug h for you.
Man was created in grace.
and sanctifying grace is friendship with God.
But friendship of a kind
which creates a loving intimacy, a sharing of nature.
He had to be
confirmed by a test: so that man, created in the image and likeness of God, with
a free will which could choose and a limpid intelligence in order to choose
well, could become the stable master of his happy condition, together with God.
However he deceived himself into thinking that he could be hap py without
God. He lost the wager, the dignity of a friend, and fell...
And he did not
only lose grace, but also other things as well.
For example, integrity:
harmony between the intelligible and that which could be reached with the
senses, between the senses and the will...Whence the inner contradiction of
every man: law of the flesh against the will of the spirit (St. Paul).
He lost the physical immortality of his corporeal life: (our body,
a building built with matter wh ich by its very nature is destined to destroy
itself...). Dear friends, if we do not convince ourselves of the truth of this
diagnosis, if we do not begin again from these truths, from this distant but
always radiant revelation, we will not be able to understand anything about
life: darkness will fall! And today mankind walks in the dark: rejection of the
supernatural, and of grace. Self-sufficiency!
We have to care for both
souls and bodies. Given what happens in the world, because of a lack of moral
values, we doubt at times that there is a will to even care for bodies: ill
health! The substance of the bible tale is neither Judaism nor Christianity; it
is not denominationalism.
It is truth which forces even pagans to ask
Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor (Ovid)
il meglio ed al peggior mi appiglio (Petrarch)
Here we encounter the
same thesis to be found in the Bible and in St. Paul. Sin: the source of the
river of our moral evil and even of physic al pain and the illnesses of the
Death entered with pain and was a protagonist.
corruption with which we were inundated because of this transgression, the
agitation of many strong and contrasting sentiments, should not make us think
that this was a small and slight moral act..." (City of God, 1. 14,
2. Redemption in the Incarnation
But it was
precisely from this abyss that Christian rebirth and optimism were born. It
should have been an irreversi ble process.
But God accepted the challenge
of man and revenged himself with an event of mercy, an event which was greater
than the creation of the universe, even if risky.
God so loved the
world that he gave his only-begotten Son for the salvation of the world.
mystery of faith which, whether recognized or not, links man to God, even when
man rebels and flees from God. It offers us the mystery of the incarnation of
the Son of God, who takes on human nature, takes on himself our sins and our
pains, and accepts death to achieve the redemption of man. Paradoxical!
sin abounds, grace abounds even more.
The incarnation of Christ, the
Word of God, is a disturbing dogma which is acceptable because of an explicit
and insistent revelation of God, begun by, and intimately linked to, the sin of
Because human reason (see Plato, see
Aristotle) manages to know the nature of God, who is spiritual, unchanging,
absolute, transcendent, infinitely g ood and the source of being.... It manages
to discover even the Word of God.
But if I were to say to Plato: That
God to whom you refer and whom you define as being the highest good of man,
I met on the roads of Palestine. I saw him suffer and die for the salvation of
man. He rose again after death and he guides us to eternal life, in both body
If I said that, Plato would laugh in my face as if I
were pronouncing some philosophical heresy. The absolute cannot become contingen
t, the eternal cannot become temporal. The spiritual by its very essence, the
pure act, cannot become corporeal and of the senses.... The incarnation, the
most ineffable doctrine of Christianity but at the same time the most difficult,
opens the human intellect like a window so that the solar light of the intimacy
of God can be received. "Believe to reason; reason to think."
dogma of the incarnation has so much importance for humanity that it cannot be
confined to a mere religious creed: it has universal value.
The person of
the Word, who remains of divine nature, not only unites himself in history to
human nature, but also shares its humiliation, its physical and moral pain, and
its death, and all this in a dimension which is the highest expression of all
the humiliations, all the pain, and all the deaths in the history of mankind.
3. Christ, the Man of Pain
Isaiah: Servant of Yahweh (Is Ch.
The Agony of Christ in Gethsemane: the universal human tragedy in
its first three-dimensional expression; from Adam, to Abel,
and...to the death-rattle of the last man.
The outflowing of blood, a
phenomenon which doctors call "haematridosis," something which
is connected to a major disturbance of the nervous system: "Sad is my
soul, until the moment of dying."
From the moment of his birth ,
Christ wishes only to die for love of man: "I must receive baptism, and I
will be troubled until I receive it."
4. Care for the Sick
and the Fathers of the Church
The Fathers of the Church were an
expression of the continuity and the authentic interpretation of the message of
Christ and the doctrine of the Church.
They were men of holiness and great
They were great philosophers who renewed and rewrote the
thought of the Greek philosophers of the pre-Christian era. They were great
theologians and profound experts in the language of God and in matters relating
to the ancient civilizations of mankind.
And it is here that we come to the
subject of this paper.
Care for the sick. This was a major aspect of the
Redemption but was of apparently secondary importance-bodies are healed, but God
is interested in souls. But man is an integral "unum" when
taken as a whole. If you cannot love man, whom you can see, how can you love God
whom you cannot see? This is n ot therefore a secondary aspect; it is at the
very least "aeque principalis." The love of God is for the
whole man, and in its corporeal and spiritual value cannot be divided into two.
It is a love which is freely given and not won, and which restores the mutual
friendship between man and God, and between man and man. It is a new right to a
life of infinite happiness which is shared with God himself. God is man's loyal
friend: "animae dimidium meas!" Who is my neighbor? The vicar
Christian redemption gave us the mother Church, teacher and expert
in humanity. How could mankind ignore the Church of Christ even if-while knowing
that she was present and working-it neglects her, turns its back on her, and
listens to other teachers?
The redemption gave us priesthood (that of every
ministry and every baptism). It gave us grace which is more abundant than
original grace, even though in the new order we have become the objects of pain,
of illness, of death and of the struggle for good.
And here everything changes:
Pain and death are no longer punishments.
They are reasons for expiation, of merit (think of the suffering of those who
are innocent!). They become an asset (in relation to Christ something which is
completely given; in relation to man, a question of participation).
The phrase of St. Paul is very beautiful (with my suffering "I
complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, in the Church, in me"
(Col 1: 24).
There is another miracle: pain (both physical and moral) can
become the source of great joy. "I am overflowing with joy in every
trial.... The sufferings of this world bear no comparison to the future glory
which awaits us." (St. Paul)
The cross, that sign of ignominy,
becomes an instrument of triumph.
"He who does not take up his
cross every day to follow me, will not be recognized by me."
for the sick and for physical misfortune-a visible sign of the Messiah: "Go
and tell John: the blind see, the dea f hear, the dumb speak, the lame walk, the
lepers are clean; and to the poor is proclaimed the Good News."
love, solidarity! Without barriers, even towards the enemy. The Good
Samaritan...who stops at the side of the wounded man, who cares for him and
places him on his pack animal (the ambulance of those times), and then takes him
to an inn to get better, paying for him with his own money. This inn is the
first "Hotel-Dieu," as hospitals are called in France!
Christ created the Church and was its corner stone. For twenty
centuries she has watched over mankind and guided humanity with her divinely
guaranteed Magisterium. Some Sundays ago John Paul II referred to the thirty
years of the life of the Council's Constitution Gaudium Spes. He
declared that it tackles "the problems of the contemporary age: marriage
and the family, culture, socioeconomic reality, politics, the promotion of peace
and solidarity between peoples."
Christ...spouse ..without blemish or
wrinkle...The mystic and visible body of Christ down the centuries ("Total-Christ...").
The root is him, the good tree cannot produce bad fruit. "Rooted in
charity and founded on charity." In the Church, as in a mine, there is the
golden vein of charity.
Immediately after being born there is nothing but
continuity between the work of Christ and the emergent Church:
seeks to welcome the sick as Christ had done:
"They carried the
sick (to Peter) to b e healed by his shadow alone."
Eucharist: "the sacrament of pity, a sign of unity, or a bond of charity!"
To the sick: heal, soothe, comfort... (Justinian).
Apostolic Church and
the preaching of the suffering Christ.
Peter: "Resist him, firm in
your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your
brotherhood throughout the world." (1 Pt 5:9)
"And being found in human form he humbled himself and became
obedient unto death, even death on a cross." (Ph 2:8).
cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set
aside, nailing it to the cross." (Col 2:14).
"But far be
it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal
"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus
Christ and him crucified." (1 Cor 2:2).
"And those who
belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires."
(Gal 5:24; 1 Cor 1:13).
"But we preach Christ crucified, a
stumbling block to Jews and a folly to gentiles" (1 Cor 1:23).
funds raised by Paul from the churches in Asia for the impoverished Church in
The Church and her apostles, true to the teaching of their
Master, are concerned with both souls and bodies, and in equal measure.
unique fashion the Christian religion promises that the body, as well as the
soul, will have eternal life.
Before Christ there was Stoicism: "substine
et abstine"...Resistance to pain.
Christ gives us the ability to
overcome suffering and to smile: St. Francis and the cure of eyes with red-hot
tears...And then the sick woman in an iron lung: "My special Ferrari
with a red head".
How many people have resisted the violence of
pain by looking at the Cross in order to be like it.
(evil breeds of Christianity, passim).
Christian charity which
separates Christians from other men, something which was unknown to the
ancients, was born with Jesus Christ. In his gospel it was the emblem of the
renewal of human nature.
The first Christians shared their goods in order
to help the needy, the sick, and pilgri ms.
It was in this way that
hospitals were born!
From that moment, works of mercy no longer had
barriers in their way. It was as if compassion overflowed into misery to the
point of neglecting it and running after it: so much misery but an equal amount
Here we ask: how did the ancients manage without places to
go when ill, without hospitals?
In order to rid themselves of the poor and
the unhappy they had two solutions which Christianity did not recognize:
infanticide and slav ery! Are the ruins of hospitals or hospices to be found
amongst the ancient monuments of Rome or of Athens?
Some local hot baths
dedicated to some divinity had the mere appearance of a health care structure,
(Lucretius: "Mussabat tacito medicina pavore"
(the plague of Athens).
(Martial: "I was rather ill. I called the
physician, Heliodorus, who arrived with a band of his disciples: forty cold
hands pressed my stomach. I did not have a temperature-I do now!")
< br>As the Church gradually acquired freedom of action (the
apostolic period, great monks, and then the great Fathers of the East and the
West) hospitals, leper colonies and isolation hospitals (this last in Latin
being derived from the name of poor Lazarus from the Gospel parable) sprang up.
these institutions monks or mere Christians engaged in volunteer work with joy.
Without any repugnance at all they bore the presence of all forms of human
misery in order to serve Christ in person within their si ck brethren.
was sick and you came to me, helped me, and took care of me."
St. Basil created a hospital-town in the environs of
Cappadocia. They called it "Basiliade".
John Chrysostom, the
great Christian orator who was also called the "panegyrist of alms"
was exiled by the Empress Eudoxia. He had denounced her publicly for having
wrongfully gained the vineyard of a widow which had been destined for a hospital
for the poor which he administered. The protector and the defender of the poor,
he was consoled by their defense when he was persecuted by the powerful. Helping
the sick gave John Chrysostom the chance to get to know doctors and to observe
their humanity in their care for the terminally ill (the sick person has a
fragile psychology which is in need of help, and the slightest thing can depress
He describes how a sick alcoholic was desperate for a
mouthful of wine. The understanding doctor made a small earthenware jug out of
clay impregnated with wine. He filled it with water and heated it on a stove.
He pulled down the blinds of the window to darken the room and took the jug to
the sick man. The alcoholic was deceived by the smell of wine and drank the
mixture with satisfaction. Chrysostom praised the sensitivity of the physician.
St. Jerome in letter number LXXVII to Oceanus gave great praise to a
certain Fabiola, a woman who was the subject of much gossip but was a convert to
Christianity. Fabiola had paid for the creation of a hospital for the poor.
"She was the first person to establish a hospital for all the
sick people she found in the street: deformed noses, empty eye sockets,
withered arms and legs, extended stomachs, skeletal thighs, rotten flesh full
of worms.... How many times did she herself carry those suffering from leprosy
to the hospital on her shoulders...She fed them with her own hands and gave a
spoonful of broth to those living corpses" (Letter number LXXVII).
Augustine of Hippo, according to his b iographer Possidius, only went to
homes where there were orphans and the sick. In the rules of the monastic order
he established there is a special chapter relating to caring for the sick. He
presents Jesus as the great physician of humanity who does not write a
prescription for the chemist but creates the medicine with his own blood,
in the exercise of his Humanity. "Come to me all you who are heavy
laden and I will give you rest."
He gave a fine sermon on the
transfiguration of Christ w here Peter said: "It is well that we are
here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and Elijah"
(Cf Mk 9:4; Mt 17:4).
The Holy Doctor said: "But come down
Peter.... Yes, it is well! But not now. Come down, there are poor people to
help, sick people to care for, the gospel to preach and to bear witness to....
Come down immediately; the vision will come afterwards."
a similar statement when Marta was in the kitchen preparing lunch for the guest
and her siste r Maria was in the living room enchanted by the voice of Jesus.
This episode gave rise to the dispute about the relative supremacy of the
value of the contemplative life or the active life. St. Augustine provided the
answer to the debate with one of his usual general summaries:
Veritatis ('love for contemplation')-Mary;
('emergency action')-Martha. This emergency action is of primary importance in
certain circumstances because of the needs of one"s n eighbor: poverty,
hunger, or illness. This is an action which is: Delectatio Caritatis et
Veritatis (joy in loving God in one's neighbor, recognizing Him and
"In caritate fundati et radicati!"
The root of this charity is truly vigorous, for it has animated the Church and
inspired important figures for two thousand years. These figures are: Camillus
de Lellis, John of God, Cottolengus, Orion Guanella, Giovanna Antida. In our
times we can think of Padre Pio, Follereau... and thousands of others,
everywhere, missionaries in the leper colonies.
But let us not speak only
of the past. Let us speak also of the present, of those who are alive today.
Mother Theresa, and many, many others ignored amidst the fire of warriors.
is what the official world knows how to do: not to love but to kill!
the good of which man is capable is the exclusive gift of God. Outside this
there is only misery and sin.
And yet the created being has a positive
value which God doe s not have-suffering!
God envied man this condition and
took it upon himself by being a victim of suffering.
St. Paul says, "Not
only man, but the whole of creation is waiting for the moment of birth."
And St. Peter says, "There will be new heavens and a new
St. Augustine, echoing Plato's invocation of a safe means
(a divine revelation) by which to reach the shore of happiness, suggested its
character: "So that there could be a means by which to go, he to whom
we wa nted to go came from the beyond. And what did he do? He prepared the wood
with which we could cross the sea. Nobody can cross the sea of this age without
being carried by the cross of Christ" (Com. Jn. Tr. 2, 2).
On one occasion Jesus asked:
"When the Son of Man
returns, will he still find faith on earth?"
Perhaps we can
"Faith, Lord? Who knows?"
We believe in the capacities of men but they always make us lose hope."
"But charit y, no. There will not be less charity. Because you,
suffering and living with us, are charity. You, who promised to be with us until
the end of time."
"Fides, spes, caritas: tria haec!
autem horum: Charitas!" (1 Co 3:3).
belongs to man....
belongs to God....
It is not biodegradable!
Rev. Carlo Cremona
Vatican Correspondent for Italian