"The Pope Has No Complex About Appearing Frail"

Interview With Secretary of Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers

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MADRID, Spain, SEPT. 29, 2003 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II is evangelizing with his suffering, says a Vatican aide.



Bishop José Luis Redrado, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, and the only bishop in the history of the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, talked about the new evangelization of the world of suffering and health and the witness of life that the 83-year-old Pope is carrying out.

Q: What is the principal task of the Church in the realm of health care?

Bishop Redrado: The Church has always been present in the health realm because she responds to the message that Jesus himself left to her: "Go, baptize, and cure the sick."

Throughout the history of the Church we see how she has been attentive to the service of the sick. She has had champions of charity, like John of God, Camillus of Lellis, St. Vincent de Paul, and an enormous army, especially of women, at the end of the 19th century. The Church has been very attentive especially in times of crisis in the world.

The present Pope is also a champion of attention to the world of the sick. When his health was brilliant and strong, we all saw him give encouragement with his word; but when he became ill, he has given us an example with his situation. I myself published an article in [the review] Ecclesia in which I referred to him as "the hospital professor." The Pope jokes saying he has three residences: the Vatican, Castel Gandolfo and the Gemelli Hospital in Rome.

Moreover, John Paul II published a document like "Salvifici Doloris," dedicated especially to pain, suffering and the meaning of human suffering. And it was also this Pope who instituted the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers. The Church really discovers with this Pope, who instituted the pontifical council, … the ministry of health, which was exercised by Jesus Christ.

In the future, this Pope will be remembered for many reasons, but above all he will be remembered as the Pope who spoke to us about pain and suffering having had an experience of these like no one else.

He has spoken to us from his experience as a professor; we have learned by seeing him suffer. And we have never seen him as brilliant as when he has been frail. It would seem that a pope or a king should hide his frailty. Even we often think: "Why does he have to look like this?" But he has no complex about appearing frail.

Q: What are the functions of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers?

Bishop Redrado: The Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers coordinates and animates from the Holy See all the organizations involved with health.

This Pope has instituted dicasteries for culture, the family and health pastoral care -- three aspects that characterized the Pope even before he was elected, because he wanted to bring to the papacy important things that he himself experienced and that are of great moment today.

Another mediation instituted by this Pope, which is multiplying the Church's presence in the world of the sick, is the World Day of the Sick, which is observed every year on Feb. 11. The pontifical council is responsible for organizing it worldwide; every year it is held in a different continent.

Last year it was in the American continent, in Washington. This year we are going to Lourdes, because the 150th anniversary will be celebrated there of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, and Lourdes is a special place. Moreover, it was at Lourdes that the 1st Day of the Sick was held, where we now return after having been to all the continents.

Q: Why is it that some men are reconciled with God while suffering, and others in such circumstances rebel against him?

Bishop Redrado: The new evangelization is carried out through the cross, but the acceptance or rejection of it depends much on a person's psychological sensitivity. Man cannot avoid what is happening to him, good or bad. Sickness is a bad thing, but it will be a good thing in the end, if a person grows in the way he sees the sickness.

If man rebels against sickness, it is an evil; if he continues to be rebellious, it is an evil. But if he gradually moves toward acceptance, and adds love to his illness as he has loved the Lord, in the end it is a good thing for the person, because he discovers a new way of seeing things and even conversion. The face of God comes closer, as God was never far away. It is a mystery.

Sickness is an occasion in a patient's life that is not easy to live through, but if he opens up to a new experience, an experience of faith and love, the patient will discover a much richer, more magnificent reality of God.

The patient experiences a Good Friday of pain, suffering, but he is not closed in on himself. Rather, like the Lord, he walks toward the resurrection. If man shuts himself up in his Good Friday, suffering without a way "toward" his resurrection, then his suffering is useless. If his suffering is open to hope, moving forward with pain, effort, frailty toward a new reality, then he experiences life and resurrection.

Sickness is a special time for the patient. The man who rushes around has no time to think. This is the reality for us all, believers and nonbelievers. It is also a special time for the family: The patient knits the family together. And it can also be a moment for the Church through a volunteer, a priest, a doctor or nurse, who brings something more than technical means, a smile. Thus, it awakens that which is asleep.

If the patient really experiences all this, in these conditions, he can become a professor, a school, a great university, but always with these conditions. There can be rebellion, which is the first human reaction. No one automatically accepts something that is difficult, but man has within himself the ability to integrate difficulty and to mature, to make it useful, for salvation, for personal conversion.

I myself went through a great illness and I won't say that it converted me -- I don't know if I am converted -- but I have learned to be more relative about things, though to be more relative does not mean to scorn.

On the contrary, it helps to see things another way and to realize that one is not so important, so indispensable. It teaches us to see that our life has a limit, and this helps us to struggle so that life is forged in a different way, because if we don't forget death we don't forget life, but if we forget death, we forget to live an experience of life.

Sickness makes this possible. Sadly, however, we pass too rapidly through these experiences -- both patients who often do not take advantage of the opportunity, as well as health care agents, the family, etc. It is a golden occasion, mysterious and difficult, but golden.

We could talk about many instances. I have impressed in my being a clamorous case, that of a religious who was not bad; he was a superior of an important community; [he was] young, not bad, but superficial. Superficiality in the religious life must be a great sin.

He was diagnosed with an illness that meant he would die in two months; however, these were two months of great purification, of great change. He changed to such a degree that I personally said: "I would like to be in his place." It is important that, if we have come this far, we give great meaning to the last step -- otherwise, of what use is death?

Q: Cardinal Claudio Hummes reported an important fact at the United Nations: 25% of AIDS patients worldwide are cared for by the Church. What does this care consist of, exactly?

Bishop Redrado: We have made a study in the pontifical council, from which the cardinal took his data, which corresponds to a reality we have verified sociologically.

We start from the fact that the Church has always been in the vanguard of everything that has occurred in the world of health. When there has been an epidemic, the Church has been there; when AIDS surfaced, the Church did not condemn but addressed the problem with mercy. The Church has inherited this capacity of acceptance and mercy from Jesus, who always accepted the marginalized.

When the Church is not merciful, it is not the Church of Jesus, which has its martyrs and prophets, its charitable gestures. A Church without martyrs and prophets is not the Church of Jesus, and a Church without the "imaginative charity" that the Pope talks about, is not the Church of Jesus.

This is the new evangelization, that of new persons, that of the evangelizer who has converted to the Gospel and proclaims it, who is a witness. This is why the converted patient, aware of what the cross means, is the best evangelizer. Whoever has not had an experience of suffering, at any level, has probably not matured in life as a person.

To tell the truth, life is difficult. Those who come after us, even if they have more means, will have a more difficult time, because the psychological aspects will be harder. Depression is the illness of the future, not AIDS, which will be combated. Depression is now the fifth major cause of absence from work. In 10 years time, it will be the third cause. To have someone who is depressed near you, in the family, is not the same as talking about it.

This November the pontifical council is organizing the 18th international conference on depression, because we see that it is the illness of the future.

For these new situations, for this period, the Church needs new men, who always emerge in times of crisis. For such a global and difficult world, a Mother Teresa of Calcutta is not enough. We need more people. John of God was a revolutionary, the "inventor of the modern hospital," who with his great sensitivity for God made him see the sick person as his neighbor. People like this are needed.

In our world, in which medicine is being revolutionized, I intuit that something new must be born within the Church, as a spirit and dimension of the Church, especially in the world of the sick.

A new real culture is needed -- which calls for an investment of money and brains -- in which men come forward who can address the new situations without fear of plurality. Culture leaves it imprint on the whole being.