With walkers and in wheelchairs they arrived, alone or assisted. Some leaned on canes and crutches. The ailing and their caretakers came to lay their afflictions at the altar.
Gradually, the pews at St. Columban Church in Garden Grove filled with hundreds. The 27th-annual World Day of the Sick Mass on Saturday, Feb. 9 coincided with the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
With Bishop Kevin Vann celebrating, assisted by Auxiliary Bishop Timothy Freyer, about 18 local parish priests and more than 25 members of the Order of Malta, the Mass offered sprinkling of holy water from the grotto of Lourdes, anointings and laying on of hands for the sick, and a special blessing for the hands of caregivers.
Initiated by Pope John Paul II, the World Day of the Sick was first celebrated in Feb. 1993 and came to the Diocese of Orange County 12 years ago.
The parishioners in attendance spanned generations and ethnicities. Their maladies ran a gamut. They sought surcease for what afflicted them, or perhaps just relief and sharing.
“It’s not always throwing away crutches,” Sherry Van Meter, one of the Dames of the Orange County Order of Malta, said of the comfort provided. “Sometimes there are miracles of acceptance, of patience and peace.”
Among those in attendance were Joseph Turcios, 25, of Santa Ana, and his mother, Paula Bridge.
Turcios, who has been blind since infancy, said one day he would like to become a priest and celebrate a Mass.
Asked whether he thought the Mass would have an effect on his eyesight, “I think it can help. But I’m just counting my blessings.”
Alanna Psomas of Balboa Island,
who has attended Lourdes as an able-bodied volunteer, recently fractured her pelvis and attended this year’s Mass using a walker.
“Now I’m the one who needs healing,” she said.
Being anointed was particularly powerful, she said.
“Once that oil is put on you, you feel blessed,” she said. “That’s totally precious. It makes me feel so close to God.”
In his homily, Bishop Vann used the stormy weather of the morning as a metaphor of illness and suffering.
“It’s a powerful reminder that sometimes in the cloudy days of life, sometimes God does break through the skies and takes over our burdens.”
Bishop Vann said when priests visit the sick and shut-in those gathered are often closer to God than any other time. At those times, God can take over our burdens and in those moments when the faithful reach to Mary “nothing is impossible.”
Pope Francis, in 2017 in his message for the World Day of Sick, wrote that Mary was called from the Cross to be “the Mother of her Son’s disciples, caring for them and their journey through life.”
In the same way, he wrote, the Church has always had a “maternal vocation” to care for the needy and the sick that it must never forget.
As Bishop Vann concluded his homily he said, “Bless the sick gathered here and fill them with new hope and strength.”
The annual Mass has become one of the more heavily attended annual events on the diocesan calendar, which is why St. Columban, the largest church in the diocese, is used.
Mike McLean, a member of the Order of Malta and chair of the local World Day of the Sick celebration, said the early-morning storm and frigid weather may have kept attendance down this year for an event that is usually packed.
He said he expected larger crowds next year, when the Mass is expected to be moved to Christ Cathedral, which is to be dedicated this summer.
The knights and dames of the Order of Malta, which has about 13,500 members worldwide and about 100 in Orange County, is critical to the Mass. The Order, founded in 1048 AD as the Sovereign Military Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, provides medical, social and humanitarian care in more than 120 nations.
The local order assists 10 local charities and hospitals, conducting food drives and giveaways and visiting hospitals. Each year, the group travels to Lourdes with “malades,” or the ailing, to ask for Mary’s intercession. This year, for the first time, they will bring written petitions from parishioners asking for miracles and blessings.
Sherry Van Meter, who with her husband Dr. Richard Van Meter, has been long involved with the Order of Malta said, “Through the years, in an organized way, this is just a chance to give back.”
She said the work has had a multigenerational affect in her family.
“The incredible thing is our grandchildren have started a charity visiting nursing homes called the Littlest Bit.”
“This is our signature event,” McLean said of the Day of the Sick Mass. “It’s who we are, working with the sick and giving as much help as we can.”