"I remember at the beginning the sick intimidated me. I needed a lot of courage to stand before a sick person and enter, so to speak, into his physical and spiritual pain, not to betray discomfort, and to show at least a little loving compassion. Only later did I begin to grasp the profound meaning of the mystery of human suffering. In the weakness of the sick, I saw emerging ever more clearly a new strength - the strength of mercy. In a sense, the sick provide mercy. Through their prayers and sacrifices, they not only ask for mercy but create a 'space for mercy,' or better, open up spaces for mercy. By their illness and suffering they call forth acts of mercy and create the possibility for accomplishing them. I used to entrust the needs of the Church to the prayers of the sick, and the results were always positive."
- Pope John Paul II, Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, 2004, pp. 75-76
While there is much about which to criticize Pope John Paul II - especially in his radical ecumenism that sought to transcend the Christian faith - there is also good reason why he became so beloved by the people under his pastoral care. The reason is this: he was a pastor. Even in the midst of his duties as pontiff of the Roman Church, John Paul never forgot that he was first and foremost a bishop, a priest, a pastor. And pastors are not called to shuffle paper-clips in a sealed-off office, but rather hold the office Christ bequeathed to the apostles and their successors to bring the gifts of God to the people of God in a real, flesh and blood way. John Paul was a pastor who lived out the oft-repeated advice of one of our own Lutheran bishops, a wise pastoral theologian named Roger Pittelko: "Love your people!"
Pope John Paul was always among the people. He saw himself not as a CEO, but as a bishop, not as a cheerleader and program director, but as a pastor.
I enjoyed reading his book Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way - written to his fellow bishops late in his pontificate. It is not a book of heavy theology, but more of a poignant collection of pastoral reflections of one who has served in Christ's ministry for nearly all of his life - typically under trying, if not outright oppressive, circumstances.
The above quotation from John Paul II could only have been written by a pastor. These are not the reflections of a "professional church worker," a medical doctor, or a concerned family member. These reflections could not have been written by a deaconess or a lay chaplain. This was obviously written by a man who regularly visited the sick in persona Christi delivering the powerful Word of God and delivering the Presence of Christ through the Holy Sacraments. As valuable as the work of lay people truly is for the physical, psychological, and spiritual care of the sick, the pastor's perspective is simply different.
When a pastor visits the sick, he is not merely giving pastoral care - but receiving it as well. For in seeing Christ in the suffering, we do well to keep in mind that the same Christ ministers to us. Pastors enjoy a special privilege in visiting the sick: repeated participation in the Divine Service. For example, I made five shut-in and sick visits this past Friday. At each juncture, I said Mass and partook in the Holy Eucharist with the person I was ministering to. The Lord had obviously determined that I needed the spiritual fortification of taking the Holy Supper with such frequency.
Not only the Holy Communion, but also the proclamation of the Gospel and Holy Scripture benefits the pastor as well. There is also the benefit of conversation with brother and sister Christians - especially those with the benefit of age and wisdom, those who are in the midst of suffering and yet provide a godly example of forbearance and steadfastness to the faith in the midst of the cross.
The holy father's advice to charge the shut-ins with prayer is wise on a number of levels. First of all, the sick and shut-ins often feel useless. Asking them to pray for the world, the church, the parish, and for myself as their pastor gives them a real sense of ongoing use to the church and world - and this is not merely psychological pap. They really do have a spiritual purpose according to God's creation and providence. They truly are an integral part of the church even if the world treats them as having no value, or as being a drain on the healthy. Secondly, especially for us Lutherans who typically lack contemplative and monastic vocations, the prayers of the shut-ins are indeed powerful and sorely needed. Prayer is nothing to sneeze at, even as St. James in the Scripture text used to anoint the sick with oil (James 5:14-16) declares (in verse 16): "The effective prayer of a righteous person has great power." The sick and shut-in have one luxury that most of us do not have: a lot of time to spend in intercessory prayer. Just as every part of the body is necessary and has a function to benefit the whole, the sick and shut-in serve the Church by providing a "space for mercy" by sending prayers heavenward for the health of the body of Christ and the proclamation of the Gospel.
Though visiting the sick is physically exhausting, it is also spiritually exhilarating. Though according to the eyes of this world, visiting shut-ins - especially in the hospital or nursing home - is miserable and depressing - through the eyes of faith, such visits are transcendent examples of the baptized Christian's triumph over the decay of this world, of the perseverance of the saints in the face of the cross, as well as the incarnation of mercy into the real world as opposed to being simply an abstract concept.
As Pope John Paul wisely points out, the sick give us opportunities to provide God's mercy. As he also hints at, the sick also provide mercy for us. In being Christ to us, they are also Christ for us.