The parable of the Good Samaritan is so powerful that the very term has passed into our language. Jesus tells us that when the Samaritan found the man who had been assaulted, he bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine, then brought him to a place where he could recover (Luke 10:34).
One of the glories of our Catholic tradition is the many institutions founded over the centuries to care for the sick. Heroic women and men have dedicated their entire lives to caring for the sick and elderly, and it may be that God is calling you to such a vocation. That is not the path for most of us, but we all should be concerned about health care in our nation. As Catholics we should do what we can to further just policies and also assist our own Catholic hospitals and convalescent homes.
Yet St. John Paul II reminds us that institutional solutions are not enough. As he recovered from the attempt on his life, the Pope wrote a moving exhortation on the meaning of human suffering, Salvifici doloris. In that remarkable document he wrote, “The institutions are very important and indispensable; nevertheless, no institution can by itself replace the human heart, human compassion, human love or human initiative, when it is a question of dealing with the sufferings of another” (SD 29). During his own recovery, the Holy Father noticed that often doctors talked about his “case” in front of him, without including him in the conversation. They were no doubt very professional, but John Paul recognized how important it is for the patient to feel that he or she is more than just a “case”.
Visiting the sick is a work of mercy that calls for special discernment. Illness isolates people, and visits and cards remind them that they are not alone. But we must also be sensitive to individual needs: some people prefer privacy when they are unwell. We need to be humble enough to ask those who are sick what help they want, rather than assuming that we know already. On the other hand, we may find that we are not making that visit to the hospital because we are uncomfortable with the fact that seeing someone we love who is ill reminds us of our own mortality. We should pray for our loved ones who are sick, and also pray for the light of the Holy Spirit to know how best to serve their needs, not our own.
We should also be mindful of the situation of people, often our neighbors, who have no friends or family at hand. Our parishes can offer many opportunities here: visits to rest homes, meals for those who have returned home after a stay at the hospital, arrangements to take those who do not drive to the doctor’s office. If we notice that someone we usually see at church has not been around, perhaps a discrete contact is in order. Bringing Holy Communion to those who are not able to come to church is a wonderful ministry.
We are told in the Book of Sirach: “Do not shrink from visiting a sick person, because for such deeds you will be loved” (Sir 7:35). The Good Samaritan gave the unfortunate man soothing medicine, and discerning care for others is Christ’s prescription, too.