In the heart of Rome, in the middle of the Tiber River between the neighborhood known as Trastevere to the southwest and the Ghetto to the northeast, there sits an island connected to the mainland by a bridge on either side. The bridges were built in ancient Roman times, and still stand and are used to this day.
The Ponte Cestio, which connects the island to Trastevere, was built in 46 BC, and has been refurbished over the centuries. The island is connected to the Ghetto side by the Ponte Fabricio, built in 62 BC and is the only original bridge left in Rome. On Tiber Island itself stands the Fatebenefratelli (“do good, brothers”) Hospital of the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God. The island was, from antiquity, a center of the healing arts, and the Church preserved and built upon this multi-millennial legacy, as witnessed by the building of the current hospital in 1584.
These two bridges which have flanked Tiber Island uninterruptedly for two millennia, and still do so to this day even with vehicular traffic driving over them all day every day, stand as a steady reminder of the Church’s constant and unswerving commitment to comprehensive care for the sick and suffering.
This has been the case from the beginning, and is what, in part, helped convert pagan Rome to being the center of the Christian faith. As early as the beginning of the fourth century the historian Eusebius of Caesarea detailed the devastating effects of a plague which hit his home town, and recounted how the Christians at that time reacted: “All day long some of them tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”
And let us not forget the famous remark of the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, just a few decades later. He recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire to a rising cultural influence, and so wrote to one of his pagan priests complaining, “[They] support not only their poor, but ours as well.”
The Order of Malta
As this assembly knows well, the Church’s constant commitment to the ministry of health care was advance by Blessed Gerard, who, while serving at the abbey of St. Mary of the Latins, was assigned by the abbot to take charge of the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem in 1080. For the next thirty plus years the hospital flourished under Br. Gerard’s leadership, expanding its operations far beyond the limits of the city and establishing daughter hospitals in cities throughout the Mediterranean world strategically located along the pilgrim route to Jerusalem. Ever since then the Order has lived the charism present at its inception – Defense of the Faith and Care for the Sick and Poor – continuously adapting to the vicissitudes of the ever-changing winds of history. As the Order continues to do today, witnessed by the free medical clinic for the poor supported by and operated out of the chancery office of the Diocese of Oakland located here at this Cathedral.
The vision for the building of this new Cathedral for the Diocese of Oakland was taking shape when then-Bishop Allen Vigneron came to the Diocese as its new bishop in 2003. It was his foresight and wisdom that understood a cathedral to be far more than a building in which special worship services are conducted. The cathedral is the heart of a diocese and the center of the Church’s life in the wider community by which the Church carries on the mission inherited from her Lord to sanctify, teach and govern, the last of which means especially service to the poor.
We thank God today for Archbishop Vigneron, who had the vision, and the Order of Malta who responded to the challenge, to establish a free medical clinic here at the Oakland Cathedral for the sick and suffering poor. You all continue the legacy of the Church which we have inherited from the very beginning, and provide that steady witness of the Church’s constant and unswerving commitment to serving the sick, poor and needy.
The Order’s charism technically is defined in Latin. In reference to its work of care for the poor and the sick, the word in Latin is not cura or servitium or ministerium, but rather obsequium – “obsequium pauperum.” This word means far more than doing something nice for people in need. Obequium carries with it the sense of yielding, of giving into and of allegiance, even of obedience. Perhaps the best word in the English language to convey the sense of the Latin word obsequium is “obeisance.” The members of the Order pledge their allegiance, their obeisance, to the poor and the sick, and always give them precedence. They are the ones in charge. That is why the knights and dames of the Order refer to the sick as “our lords.”
This speaks to the special status that the sick have always had in the life of the Church. They are, after all, the only category of people in a situation of physical distress who have a sacrament just for them. There is no sacramental anointing for the unemployed, the homeless, migrants, or the incarcerated. Caring for these brothers and sisters of ours is of supreme importance to us as Christians, but there is no sacramental anointing for them. Perhaps this is so because the state of physical illness and weakness is symbolic of the state of our souls crippled by sin. The sick are themselves a sort of sacrament for us, and by responding to them with the love of Christ himself the state of our own souls improves.
The Miracle of Lourdes
The reality of all of this manifests itself no more clearly than in that pilgrimage destination renowned for its healing power: Lourdes. It is the sick who are in charge of the Order of Malta pilgrimage there every year, and the outpouring of love in the midst of so much suffering manifests itself physically. Lourdes is well known for the miraculous physical healings that occasionally occur there. Those more intimately familiar with the place know that the miraculous spiritual healings are far more common. Doubters and naysayers may wish to dismiss such affirmations as fanciful attempts to downplay unresolved physical suffering. But the spiritual healing manifests itself physically, as seen in the smiles on the faces of everyone in Lourdes. Tears, too, but not tears of sadness; tears of joy, tears of love.
Lourdes is a place of the journey from sickness to health, spiritual as well as physical; a journey from darkness to light; a journey from the suffering of this earth to the peace of heaven. Are we really ready for that? Are any of us really comfortable with heaven? The vision of heaven may surprise us, even shock us. And, perhaps, even worry us. It worries me when I think about how St. Mother Theresa of Calcutta described it when she visited San Francisco in 1982. In recounting the experience of one of her sisters, she said:
One day one of our sisters picked up a man from the street. He was very near death. When she picked him up the skin on his back came off of his body and he was covered with worms. He died after a while but with the most wonderful smile on his face. I asked the Sister what she felt when she was washing that man. She said, ‘the presence of Christ.’
Not the vision of heaven we would expect! Or would describe if given the choice! This is why Mother Theresa could call suffering a gift from God. “It is not a punishment,” she said. “It purifies us. Especially today, when the world is suffering so much, the passion of Christ is present.” We thank God that we have the presence of so many of her spiritual daughters here on both sides of the San Francisco Bay to provide us with a constant reminder of the true vision of heaven.
Beauty Through Sacrifice and Suffering
It is the experience of suffering that creates within us the capacity for creating something beautiful for God, with each of us making our own journey from darkness to light, from sickness to health. This journey, the journey from earth to heaven, is expressed in the beauty of the music of this Mass, made possible in no small part because the composer, Frank LaRocca, himself experienced his own journey from sickness to health while composing this Mass. What you hear today is a testament to the spiritual reality of what brings us together in this church.
We want to do something beautiful for God, and it is sacrifice and suffering that makes it possible, possible when we do it together. It is possible when we share with each other the gifts that God has given to us: musicians, singers, composers, organizers, experts in liturgy, and also benefactors, all sharing abundantly of their time, talent and treasure, all contributing in a dynamic of communion – that is, the sharing of temporal and spiritual goods.
In this regard I would like to express a special word of thanks to the patroness of this Mass, Moira Conzelman, present here with us today along with many of her friends from the Maryknoll alumni network, who have come to join us today for this Mass from near and far. Thank you, Moira, for your great generosity in making this Mass possible, and all you do to support the good works of the Church. This is what can happen when we all give to God the absolute best that we can give.
Faith Made Visible
Defense of the faith and obeisance to the poor and the sick: the former is contained in, but not confined to, the latter. Yes, it is necessary to defend the faith by speaking and teaching the truth, but also to defend it through goodness and beauty. Goodness and beauty are the means by which the truth of Christ becomes visible. It harnesses the power of the truth to heal and cast light in the midst of darkness and suffering. The Order of Malta, the Missionaries of Charity, the Maryknoll Missionaries, and countless other orders, congregations and communities in the Church understand this, and have lived it for 2,000 years.
These communities bring Christ’s healing presence to the suffering. They follow the example of our Holy Mother Mary, who is always there to accompany us. She makes herself present times of distress and of great historical crises. So she was there with her cousin Elizabeth, in her time of need and at that historical moment when the great mysteries of salvation were unfolding not only before their eyes but within their very bodies.
She made herself present to St. Bernadette at Lourdes, to bring the healing power of her Son to the poorest and most insignificant village imaginable, and to reveal herself as the Immaculate Conception. That is, her whole being is ordered toward her Son, to bring him into the world, so much so that God preserved her from sin to be a worthy vessel for His Son to come into the world.
We are happy to be here to honor our Lady, the vessel through whom our Lord lavishes upon us so much grace. We are happy to come together to pray with and serve our lords, the sick, who will be anointed with the oil of the sacrament, a sort of consecration, setting them apart as a sacramental presence to us, a reminder of the spiritual healing we all need, and the opportunity God gives us to show love, bringing us closer to heaven, to His healing, light and peace.
Above all, we are happy to be here to worship our God, made manifest in His Son Jesus Christ, who comes to meet us through his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity on the altar. To Him be all honor and glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Talk delivered by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, at the Mass for the Premier of the “Messe des Malades: in Honor of Our Lady of Lourdes,” on the occasion of the World Day of the Sick on the Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11, 2023; Oakland Cathedral of Christ the Light.