Since 1993, the Church has celebrated Feb. 11 as World Day of the Sick, a feast day instituted by Blessed Pope John Paul II. The date was chosen in commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes, who on Feb. 11, 1858, released a spring of divine healing water on a rocky hillside in Lourdes, France.
On World Day of the Sick, he said, believers should seek “a special time of prayer and sharing, of offering one’s suffering.”
This year, that comes two days before Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13, which marks the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. While the 40 days before Easter traditionally have been observed with prayer, penance, repentance, almsgiving and fasting or other forms of self-denial, many of the faithful seek to unite themselves with Christ by offering up their own suffering.
Pope John Paul II wrote a great deal on the topic, particularly in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian meaning of human suffering), released on Feb. 11, 1984. In it he addresses the redeeming suffering of Christ and states that, “each one is also called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed.”
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul the Apostle wrote, “For as Christ’s sufferings overflow to us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow” (2 Cor 1:5).
Everyone suffers in some way, some more than others. Among us are those who reach out to encourage each other, and from that comes acceptance, peace and even joy. Here are some of their stories.
Letter-writing apostolate ministers to chronically ill, disabled
Franciscan Father Lawrence Jagdfeld has served in many capacities with CUSA: An Apostolate of Persons with Chronic Illness and/or Disability, a sponsored ministry of the Franciscans of the Sacred Heart.
He became a spiritual adviser and a columnist for its publication in the 1980s, was editor, served on the board of directors and was appointed administrator in 2007. Along the way, his role expanded from being a priest serving members to becoming a man with physical challenges, too.
Father Jagdfeld was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease in 1990, and surgery on the inner ear disorder left him deaf in one ear and with balance problems. He later was diagnosed with colon cancer and psoriatic arthritis.
“I obviously turned to CUSA for prayerful intercession,” he said. “I let the people know the difficulties that I was experiencing and they started praying for me like I had been praying for them.”
That’s what CUSA is all about. Friends who were once strangers (and who probably will never meet) support each other with prayer and encouragement. They belong to groups of eight or fewer members. There are about 40 groups on four continents, and some people have been members for decades. All the groups speak English, and they keep in touch through letters or emails circulated in a round-robin style. Thirty-three priests serve as spiritual advisers.
CUSA, founded in 1947, is based in Cicero, Ill. It was first called the Catholic Union of Sick Associates, then the Catholic Union of the Sick in America. When people with disabilities did not want to be known as “sick,” the ministry kept the acronym of CUSA but added “An Apostolate of Persons with Chronic Illness and/or Disability” to the title.
Most members in the past had physical disabilities. Now many have chronic depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues that, although invisible, can be disabling.
“There’s still a societal stigma attached to mental disabilities, and people don’t understand,” said Father Jagdfeld. “I’ve had CUSANs tell me that their family members pay them to stay away from family gatherings. We are having people coming back from war with traumatic brain injuries, and their families will be [initially] supportive, then drift away because they cannot deal with the changes.”
Illnesses and disabilities inevitably change lives. Father Jagdfeld had taught in high school but became unable to stand for long periods. He cannot celebrate Mass without the aid of a deacon, and he uses a cane or walker. That said, he considers his evolution with CUSA as the work of the Holy Spirit during those transitions.
“I became unable to do the traditional ministries of a priest,” he said. “If I didn’t have CUSA, not only would I not have the spiritual support of the members, but I don’t know if I would still be as active as I am today. I have been able to find my work in who I am — someone who believes and who has placed his faith in God and in Jesus.”
Father Jagdfeld’s homilies now lean toward healings.
“I cannot even read the Gospels the same way anymore,” he said. “I read them from the point of view of a person with a disability because, obviously, the Gospels are filled with stories of healing and curing. But I make that distinction. I have not experienced Jesus curing me. But I have experienced Jesus healing me.”
Strength through sharing
Carolyn Boniface of Randallstown, Md., became certified in health care ministry in the 1970s when she couldn’t find a support ministry to help her face the challenge of multiple sclerosis. That way, she could help others in ways that she had wanted to experience herself.
She worked with cancer patients. Sometimes, she said, her condition was so poor that the patients had to help her to her car.
“I also worked in a hospice program, and I sat with a lot of people who were dying,” she said. “I felt like it was the greatest blessing to be with them.”
She found more blessings when she joined CUSA 35 years ago and became a group leader and section leader.
“It’s the most wonderful thing I could have done because it’s so good to have friends who are suffering in similar ways and have the same frustrations,” she said. “Being able to share with them gives you strength. It’s a wonderful comfort.”
Boniface, 76, raised three children and is now a widow. She teaches music appreciation inclusion classes for people with developmental and physical challenges, and pottery classes.
“I don’t feel pain when I’m working in clay,” she said. “I just get lost in it, and it’s like the best therapy I could ever do.”
She’s come a long way in both her spiritual and physical journeys, and she credits both healings to small miracles. One occurred at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Md.
“I took a photograph during Mass, and it was amazing — the Blessed Mother was right in the middle of that photo,” she said. “I threw away my crutches and from then on, all I needed was a cane. But I still have blurred vision once in a while and have to be careful not to get too tired. I think that I have handled the MS very well, with the help of God."
Building each other up
Carolyn Myers joined CUSA because she thought it would somehow be beneficial to her life, but she never expected how much it would mean to her.
“It’s a true ministry and has benefitted me in so many ways,” she said. “We get to know each other as family, even though we’ve never met. We get so close to each other that we grieve at someone’s passing.”
|Carolyn Myers with her husband, Joe. Courtesy of Carolyn Myers
Myers, 68, of Tunkhannock, Pa., was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and myofascial pain in 1999. She now is a CUSA group leader and section leader.
Each group has a patron saint, a motto and an intention. For instance, hers has the Mother of Sorrows as patron, “We shall overcome” as the motto, with intentions focusing on the success of all missions. St. Francis of Assisi is the patron of another group, the motto is “Smile, God loves you,” and the intention is peace among all people and nations.
As a leader, Myers sends out an initial letter that’s passed around with each member building on the original letter. Members write about their struggles, their joys, therapies that are working, their recoveries and their setbacks. They write about family, too, and their faith. They stop the round robin of letters when it reaches 500 pages, then they start again.
“I don’t know a person with a chronic illness or disability who’s not struggling,” Myers said. “In CUSA, we try to build each other up in the Faith. For the most part, we are united for the same purpose, and the main thing is to find purpose in suffering. And that’s a tough one. I’ve found some purpose, but I think it’s an ongoing process.”
Her blessings include her husband, Joe, their five children and two grandchildren, and the sense of humor that she inherited from her late mother. But No. 1 is her faith, and the plan of God that worked out in ways that she never expected. “It was always for my own good,” she said.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.