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The Periphery of Illness

February 12, 2015


Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has continuously called the Church to go to the peripheries. The Pope has also backed these words up with his own actions; just this past week unexpectedly stopping for a few minutes on a trip to a parish in Rome to visit a migrant camp.  There is a beautiful video of the Pope dressed all in his customary white walking down a very poor street with the residents literally running to greet him, looks of pure joy on their faces!  The Holy Father is teaching by word and deed the great gospel truth that Christ is found with the poor and in the peripheries.  He is also reminding us that the turn to the peripheries of our world is a constant source of renewal for the Church – both institutionally and individually in each of our lives of discipleship.  This is a wisdom that our world cannot fathom.  At best the world sees the poor as a social project to be addressed and overcome or, at worse, a disgrace and something to be hidden away.  The Pope is proposing a different way: step out of the bubble that our world tries to keep you in, go to the poor, meet them and become friends.  It is direct in its Gospel simplicity. 

Sometimes, though, the peripheries are not on the edges or in the slums of our cities but right before our very eyes.  “Going to the peripheries” may not always be just about going to some physical location but allowing our eyes to be opened and our attitudes to be challenged by the light of the Gospel.  I have come to believe that those persons dealing with sickness and illness in their lives are often the hidden peripheries right in front of our eyes that we so easily rush past.  Jesus did not rush past them nor was he deaf to their need. 

In verse twenty-nine of the first chapter of Mark we have the beginning of the account of the first healing miracle of Jesus recorded in Mark’s gospel – the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law who lay sick with a fever.  Jesus had just taught “with authority” in the synagogue and had expelled a demon again, “with authority” and now he enters into the house of Simon and Andrew.  Immediately the people tell Jesus of the woman’s illness.  And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them.  (The New American Bible translation used in our liturgies says, “…he approached her,”.)

He came/approached … took her by the hand … lifted her up.  Is this not a perfect description of the call to the periphery that our Holy Father has been making, again and again, by word and deed?  The call to the periphery does not need to be some big, dramatic gesture.  It is as simple as noticing, being conscious and taking the time needed. 

In my community (church and larger) I can notice those who are dealing with illness and sickness in their lives.  I can take the time to offer a word of support or lend a supporting hand.  I can help lift up another person.  And by this, I can be transformed in my own life of faith!  I can step out of the bubble the world wants to keep me in and I can begin to live my life by the greater horizon of the Gospel!    

We are so fixated on health in our world (which is not necessarily a bad thing) that we can, it seems to me at least, run the risk of almost falling into an unconscious judgmental attitude toward those who are unhealthy or sick.  We can almost say to ourselves, “that person must have done something to bring this on.”  No one can answer that.  Yes, maybe someone, somewhere along the line made the choice to begin smoking, maybe someone has not been exercising like he or she should but maybe also they have had to make the choice to work two or three jobs in order to support their family and sacrifice for their kids, maybe he or she just doesn’t have the resources to buy the good, organic food which simply costs more.  We just don’t know. 

When we stay in our own bubbles we will never know because all we have are our own assumptions.  Only when we step out of our bubbles, only when we notice and approach the other person can we truly learn his or her story.  Only then can we become friends.  Only then can we also be transformed by the light of the Gospel.    

On February 11th the Church observed World Day of the Sick and this day is specifically tied to the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.  Our Blessed Lady is a constant refuge for all who suffer sickness and illness in their lives.  Hopefully, we can learn the truth she offers, the truth she gained from her very son!             

Jesus came/approached … took her by the hand … lifted her up.