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The Healthcare Ministry in the Pontificate of John Paul II is one of the characteristic elements in his Magisterium as Pastor of the Church.

The creation of the "World Day of the Sick" (1), and the post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis, show us that the Healthcare Ministry is a constant element in his priesthood.

It is evident to all that John Paul II, from the very first moment of his Pontificate, has presented himself as the Supreme Pastor of the Church engaged in a distinct mission: adhering fully to Vatican II, he has begun, and is carrying forward, "a wise Christological, Mariological, and anthropological matrix of motives... This "fitting" anthropology, which has Christ at its centre, is truly a constant element of today's pontifical Magisterium: a positive evaluation of man; a drawing of attention to his psychophysical dignity as a unique being-a being who is original and individually unrepeatable, and placed by God at the summit of creation; a constant defence of this dignity in the most varied of circumstances and in the most specific of contexts" (2, 3)

Another self-evident element also presents itself to us: the special devotion to the defence of man-who is seen as, and believed to be, "the first and fundamental way of the Church" (4) -at the moment of his greatest poverty and fragility: when he is deprived of the blessing of health. And who is the first and the one most involved in the project of evangelization that the times require if not the priest himself?

In doing his duty as Supreme Pastor, he gives and leaves constant signs in different places and at different times, (5) and he does this with the spontaneity of one who lives in a daily fraternal giving to those who are responsible, together with him, for the spiritual life of men.

A deeply-held credo induced him to write the first document on suffering - the Apostolic Letter Salvifici Doloris (6) He did this because he believes that "suffering seems to belong to the transcendence of man: it is one of those points where man in a certain sense is "destined" to rise above himself and is called upon to do so in a mysterious way" (SD, 2). It is a historic moment which ensures "that man becomes the way of the Church in a special way when suffering enters his life.... Suffering seems to be, and is, almost inseparable from the terrestial existence of man" (ibid.)

The next year he founded the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers with the Apostolic Letter Dolentium Hominum (7). In this epistle he entrusted the Pontifical Council with the task of: "stimulating and promoting the work of training, study and action carried out by the different International Catholic Associations in the field of health policy and care, without in any way neglecting the other groups, associations and forces which operate in this area in different ways and at different levels, coordinating the activity of the different ministries of the Roman Curia in matters relating to the world of health and its problems, spreading, explaining and defending the teachings of the Church in questions relating to health policy and care and encouraging their diffusion at a practical level in the world of health, forming and maintaining contacts with the local Churches and in particular with the Bishops'Commissions dedicated to the world of health policy and care; attentively following and studying the practical initiatives and orientations at the level of programmer which arise in the sphere of health policy, whether national or international, with the goal of assessing their relevance and implications for the apostolate of the Church" (DH, 6).

The Pope is convinced (8) that those who dedicate themselves to the world of health care - the Health Care Workers - enter into the most intimate part of man, into his existence, into the "incarnation of man" - man as a spiritual being - into that quid which makes him such, and which is united with material "flesh" to give him an unrepeatable place in history (9). This is a special category which establishes, normally, contact with the spiritual part of man (10).

The person who is near to man in the moment of supreme trial caused by suffering of the flesh can influence and shape his spiritual life. The presence of well trained and prepared health care workers is very important at the most authentic and real moment of man's encounter with himself. These health care workers "should be guided by an integrally human vision of illness and should therefore know how to engage in an approach to the sick person which is entirely human. For the Christian, the redemption of Christ and his salvific grace reach the whole man in his human entirety, and thus, in inclusive fashion, also reach sickness, suffering, and death" (DH, 2).

If the Holy Father has a very high opinion of, and appreciation for, those members of the laity who are engaged in care for, and defence of, life, (11) and believes that their presence at the side of those pastors of souls who dedicate themselves to this apostolate is not only useful but of great importance (12), he offers priests (and especially young people called to the priesthood) the model of "Mary the Handmaiden of the Lord", who was inspired by the Holy Spirit with the readiness and willingness to serve, something expressed in the words we pronounce at the Angelus: "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord" (Lk 1:38). (13)

This readiness and willingness of the spirit must be found in every priest, in all priests, and not only in those who dedicate their pastoral ministries to tending the sick. This is because "this service to the Lord is immediately developed into service to one's neighbour, as is shown by the journey she undertook to be nearer her sister Elisabeth" (14).

From the first moment of conception of the Son of God until the end, when she was at the side of the divine sufferer and present at the last breath on the cross, Mary is exhalted by John Paul II as the special model of this inescapable pastoral service rendered to the suffering of man. This is not all. It is precisely at this moment that the high-point of the love-suffering of the God-Man is reached: "Being proclaimed by Jesus mother of a priest - (John) - and being, above all else, the mother of Jesus the High Priest, Mary becomes in a very special way the mother of priests.... 'Take Mary with you': herein is to be found the duty and privilege of every priest." (15)

It is evident that in the daily path trodden by the priesthood of John Paul II the Virgin Mary places her permanent formation on pastoral care of the suffering, as is shown by an ascent which is always on an upward gradient.


He Comes from Afar

Where this special pastoral concern for man comes from is a question which naturally arises.

He suprised everybody when he went to the Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome to visit the then Archbishop Andrew Maria Deskur, who was later made a Cardinal, a few hours after his election to the Papacy. It was the afternoon of the eighteenth of October 1978.

It was not known that the spirit of this pastor was totally consecrated to the service of man and particularly of suffering man.

It was immediately realized that every act and gesture made towards a sick person, whether small or great, came from a great faith "in the mystery of the Church as his body, Christ in a certain sense opened his own redemptive suffering to every suffering of man. To the extent to which man becomes a participant in the sufferings of Christ - in any place in the world and at any time in history - he completes in his own way that suffering through which Christ effected his redemption of the world" (SD, 24).

That day, because of this faith, His Holiness, in referring to what he had said to the Cardinal that morning, declared that he wanted "to found my papacy above all on those that suffer and unite their prayers to suffering, passion and pains.... Dearly beloved brothers and sisters, I would like to entrust myself to your prayers...[because you are] very strong; very strong, in the same way as the Crucified Jesus Christ was strong"(16).

In the course of recent years the idea that this choice came from afar has gained ground. Confirmation came from the Pope himself last year during a visit to a hospital in his homeland: "From the outset of my pastoral service I have linked myself to the medical world and to the whole world of service to health care. Amongst those present here I see people I met at the beginning of my pastoral work." (17)

A vocation within vocation. And we believe that its roots are to be found in the early years of life because of "the mourning that marked his childhood and his adolescence" (18) Karol Woityla, the Pope, when referring to himself as a child, revealed that "I had not yet reached the age of my first communion when I lost my mother, and she thus was unable to experience the joy of seeing that day, a day she had looked forward to as a great joy" (ibid.). Frossard observes that "he only saw his mother when she was ill."

The experience of suffering felt so early on in his life at the centre of his existential sphere left a deep mark on his soul. He still remembers today that "my brother Edmond died from a virulent epidemic of scarlet fever in the hospital where he was embarking on his medical career. If it had happened today, antibiotics would have saved him. I was twelve years old. The death of my mother left a deep mark on my memory, but perhaps that of my brother left an even deeper mark because of the dramatic circumstances in which it took place and because I was older. Thus it was that at a relatively early age I became an orphan and an only child" (ibid.).

We should not here speak of conditioning influences. But we can talk of clear orientations if we look at the development his life was to take.

The level of spiritual life absorbed within his home at these dramatic moments - including the death of his father which occurred when "I was not yet twenty"(19) - taught him that "a fully human and conscious serene death does not cause fear but renders the life of those who are present at this death more serious and encourages them to engage in deeper reflection."(20)

It is a common opinion that the development of the personality takes place during childhood and youth. St Augustine wrote that reason and intelligence sleep, so to speak, in the child, but with the passing of years wake up and developer (21).

We can with good reason suggest, therefore, that in the spirit of the adolescent and then young Karol the determination to consecrate himself to being a pastor of this suffering grew and made strides during these years. The sublime example of how his relatives were led to sublimate their pain by the spiritual assistance of worthy pastors of the soul marked and oriented his choice in favour of a priesthood founded upon pastoral care for the sick.

If a historical date is required, we can find it in the moment of his presence at the University of Cracow where, as a recently ordained priest, he ministered to the young university students of the Faculty of Medicine (22).

This was an intense bond which was to last, as a direct witness bears out: "I speak of this bond with especial emotion and feeling because in that University I grew as a student (in truth I was there for only a little while), as a priest and teacher, as a bishop, and finally as Metropolitan of Cracow. At the beginning I developed this bond, I then consolidated and defended it forcefully when there was an external attempt to break it." (23)

To this day one of the initiatives the then Archbishop of Cracow promoted, organized, and defended on behalf of health care workers is still alive and in full activity. I am referring to the spiritual meetings held at the Marian Sanctuary of Czestochowa which are intended for professional health workers-meetings in which our Council has taken part on more than one occasion. At these meetings one could not but be impressed by the crowded and devout participation of thousands of people, at a time when freedom was still not yet achieved in that country. (24)

In his untiring service as Supreme Pastor of the Church, John Paul II has put down in writing - and every day he continues this undertaking - a theology of suffering which is organic and systematic. (25) Based upon the Cross of Christ, it is located deep in the Easter mystery (cf SD, 21).

Conscious that the evangelical parable of the Good Samaritan "has become one of the essential component parts of moral culture and universally human civilization" (SD, 29). and certain that "Christ at the same time taught man to do good with suffering and to do good to those who suffer. In this dual aspect he fully revealed the meaning of suffering" (SD, 30). This is the word of God that the Pope, the "Good Shepherd", expresses in his priesthood.

The person who searches for a model by which to apply the directions derived from these last two acts of John Paul II, will find it alive and active in his priesthood as Supreme Pastor of the Church.


Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council
for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers


* "Dolentium Hominum - Church and Health in the World", Journal of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, n. 20 - 1992 (n. 2), pp. 73ss


(1) "Lettera del Santo Padre Giovanni Paolo II al Cardinale Fiorenzo Angelini, Presidente del Pontificio Consiglio delta Pastorale per gli Operatori Sanitari, 13 Maggio 1992" in L'Osservatore Romano, 14 May 1992, pp. 1, 5.

(2) "Given at Rome on 25 March, solemnity of the Annunciation of Our Lord, in the year 1992, the fourteenth year of the Pontificate of John Paul II".

(3) Cardinal Paul Poupard, "Il Senso di un Pontificato" in L'Osservatore Romano, 2 January 1992, p. 4.

(4) JOHN PAUL II, the encyclical Redemptor Hominis, n. 14.

(5) JOHN PAUL II, Cari Sacerdoti Paoline editions 1990: Rio de Janeiro, 2.7.1980, p. 236; Orvieto, 22.11.1981, p. 241; Manchester, 31.5.1982, p. 159; Holy Thursday 1983, p. 57; Togo, 9.8.1985, p. 271; Augsburg, 4.5.1987, pp. 313-314. John Paul II, the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, 7.12.1990, n. 78.

(6) "Given at Rome, at St. Peter's, on the feast of the Blessed Virgin of Lourdes, 11 February 1984, in the fourth year of the Pontificate" (SD).

(7) "Given at Rome, at St. Peter's 11 February 1985, in the seventh year of the Pontificate" (DH).

(8) The reflections which follow were made at the audience granted to the Cardinal President, the Secretary, and the Under-Secretary of this Department on 30 January 1988.

(9) Dolentium Hominum, no. 2: "Illness and suffering are phenomena which, if analysed in their deepest aspects, always raise questions which go beyond medicine itself to tonch the essence of the human condition in this world" (cf GS 10).

(10) Ibidem: "Illness and suffering, indeed, are not experiences which only concern the physical substratum of man, but man in his entirety and in his spiritual-somatic unity. It is also known, furthermore, how at times an illness which manifests itself in the body has its its origins and its real cause in the recesses of the human psyche".

(11) See JOHN PAUL II, post-synodal Apostolic Exortation Christifideles Laici, 30.12.1988, n. 38.

(12) Cf Dolentium Hominum, no. 2.

(13) Castel Gandolfo 5.8.1990, at the Angelus, L'Osservatore Romano, 6-7, 8. 1990, pp. 1, 5.

(14) Ibidem.

(15) At the Angelus, 1.11.1990, L'Osservatore Romano, 12-13.2.1990, p. 1.

(16) "Giovanni Paolo II fra gli ammalati del Policlinico A. Gemelli", L'Osservatore Romano, 19.10.1978, pp. 1-2.

(17) Speech given at the pediatric hospital of Prokocim in Cracow, Tuesday 13.8.1991, L'Osservatore Romano, 14.8.1991, p. 5.

(18) A. Frossard, Non Abbiate Paura (Rusconi, 4th. edition, July 1983), p. 12.

(19) Ibidem.

(20) W. Poltawska "Il Ruolo della Famiglia nello Svillupo della Personalità" in Dolentium Hominum, no. 16 (1-1991), p. 86; see also, /oc.cit, G.M.Ederman, "Mente e Cervello: Centro Vitale dell'Esistenza Humana", pp. 22-4; J.P. Grant, "I Bambini e l'Esistenza", pp. 211-14.

(21) Cf St. AUGUSTINE, The City of God, 22, 24.

(22) Information supplied to the author by Prof. Wanda Poltawska, 23.11.1991.

(23) Speech given on 15.8.1991 at Czestochowa during the ceremony for the blessing of the new seminary. In the text the Pope makes explicit reference to "the Jagellonic University with its Theological Faculty", L'Osservatore Romano, 16.8.1991, p. 10.

(24) See Dolentium Hominum, no. 2 (2-1986), p. 70, n.5 (2-1987), p. 79, n.8 (2-1988), p. 75.

(25) Cf Cardinal Fiorenzo Angelini, Quel Soffio sulla Creta, "La Teologia della Sofferenza nel Pensiero di Giovanni Paolo II", Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers, Rome, 1990, pp. 154-161.