The Basilica of the National Shrine – last Tuesday launched its 2016 Speaker and Event Series with a splendid lecture on “Compassion – The Thirst of God: Visiting the sick as a work of mercy” by Msgr. Brian Bransfield, recently elected General Secretary of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Pope Francis has given us an incredible year, said Bransfield. In fact, he has given us two gifts namely the notion of the Church as a field hospital where we meet Jesus Christ. And secondly, Pope Francis has introduced us to the Year of Mercy.
In an interview to the Jesuit Antonio Spadaro, published in the Catholic magazine, America in September 2013, Pope Francis in answer to the question on the kind of Church he dreams of, responded: “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle…” This possibly explains why of all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy this first lecture of the year focused on visiting the sick.
The Year of Mercy officially launched last December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and runs through to November 2016, Solemnity of Christ the King.
The Holy Father invites us to deepen our notion of mercy through an understanding of the compassion of God, a compassion manifested in Christ, Bransfield told the over 40 persons that had stayed after evening mass to listen to him.
It is no mere coincidence that this jubilee Year of Mercy kicked off on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception which happens to be the patronal feast of the Basilica of the National Shrine. The Basilica is intimately connected to this Year of Mercy then.
In his recommendations for the celebration of this year, Pope Francis calls on Catholics to reflect on and live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, one of which is visiting the sick. Bransfield submits that compassion is at the heart of visiting the sick.
Drawing from a rich pastoral experience while ministering to the sick in a large parish in his diocese of origin, Philadelphia, he recounted a life changing experience with a dying woman in a hospice room. As he blessed her, she repeated the blessing after him but ended up saying: May the blessing of the Lord come upon you and keep your faith alive. Visiting the sick is an act of faith and benefits both the guest and the visitor.
“We may think we do the sick a favor when we visit them. In some sense we do,” said Bransfield. Christ invites us to the ministry of the sick. He himself touched the leper and entered into the margins of life. The speaker urged all to enter into the uncomfortable space of visiting the sick. They are Jesus Christ to us.
These words echo a favorite theme of Pope Francis namely reaching out to the peripheries.
“We must get out of ourselves and go toward the periphery. We must avoid the spiritual disease of the Church that can become self-absorbed: when this happens, the Church itself becomes sick. […] Between a Church that goes into the street and gets into an accident and a Church that is sick with self-referentiality, I have no doubts in preferring the first. (Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the pre-conclave General Congregation of the Cardinals, March 2013)
Msgr. Bransfield then explained the Christo-centric character of visiting the sick noting that, “When we visit the sick, we imitate Christ the physician; when we visit the sic, we visit Christ the victim. But it is also an act of compassion.” But just what does it mean to be compassionate?
Availing of the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal son, Msgr.Bransfield elucidated the meaning of compassion beyond just feeling sorry for someone. He demonstrated how the anonymous man who fell in the hands of robbers and laid wounded is doubly hurt by the rejection especially of the priest and Levite who passed by. Many of the sick in our community feel this sense of abandonment and rejection in hospitals, hospices and nursing homes, he intimated.
The Samaritan’s action teaches us compassion. The parable recounts that the Samaritan was traveling and was moved with compassion for the victim. The essence of compassion here is conveyed from the Greek meaning of compassion, “splekchne” – inner most places are trembling with the presence of God. The Father in the parable of the prodigal son is also moved with compassion – he is trembling.
We visit the sick because Christ leads us there and he ministers to us and to the sick.
“On the Cross, Christ gives new meaning to all suffering. He cries out: I thirst, he empties everything. In this cry of I thirst, Christ calls us to works of mercy. He invites us to visit the sick: I was sick and you visited me. He draws us to the mercy of God. We enter into God’s mercy as we step closer to those who are sick,” concluded Bransfield.
At the end of the talk, the speaker had the opportunity to autograph some of his books which were on sale in memorial hall out of the Crypt Church where the lecture had taken place. The Next lecture will be on February 17th after the 5:15pm mass.