Healing the sick and bringing comfort to the afflicted were a central part of Jesus’ ministry. This mission to the poor and marginalized has been carried out by the Church in each generation, and perhaps never is this more evident than on the Church’s World Day of the Sick, which occurs each year on Feb. 11, coinciding with the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Earlier this month, the Diocese of Orange honored the sick and disabled with a special healing Mass at Saint Columban Parish in Garden Grove. Presided over by Bishop Emeritus Tod Brown, the Mass was attended by close to a thousand people, including the sick and their caregivers, as well as other laypeople who participated in this special event.
Pope John Paul II first established the World Day of the Sick in 1992. Having suffered from Parkinson’s disease, the Pope was especially aware of those enduring chronic or incurable illnesses, and he used his own experience as a means of shedding light on Our Lord’s special concern for those who suffer. Pope John Paul connected his suffering, as well as that of others, with the suffering of Christ Himself, who was scourged and crucified for our salvation. In his original 1992 proclamation establishing World Day of the Sick, the Holy Father reminded Catholics that in our suffering, we imagine Christ, “who, by suffering, dying, and rising, achieved the salvation of mankind.”
The event at Saint Columban was organized and hosted by the Order of Malta, a nearly 1,000-year-old organization that emphasizes loyalty to the Church and service to the poor. Terry Gilmore, a Knight of the Order, organized Saturday’s event, and told OC Catholic, “The primary function of the Order of Malta … has always been for the poor and the sick. It started out as a military organization to protect the pilgrims going from Europe down to the Holy Land.” The order was established in 1048 AD, around the time of the Crusades, and initially provided assistance to the Christians living in the Holy Land. As the centuries passed, the Order evolved into one that focused more on service to the ill and infirm.
Today, the chapters of the Order of Malta exist in more than 120 countries worldwide, and one of their primary means of serving the needy is by hosting trips to the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, where the sick can touch the miraculous Lourdes water. It was at this grotto that the 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1858. From these humble beginnings, devotion to Our Lady of Lourdes has spread throughout the world, and a number of miracles have been confirmed in association with the waters that well up from the grotto near where the apparitions took place. In 1860 Bishop Laurence of Tarbes-et-Lourdes declared that the apparitions of Mary were genuine, and in 1864 a statue of the Virgin Mary was constructed and installed in the Grotto.
The Order of Malta organizes and sponsors trips to Lourdes, as well as the annual World Day of the Sick Mass here in Orange County for those who are unable to make the journey to France. Gilmore calls this local Mass “a mini-Lourdes,” and “a shortcut to Lourdes.” As a longtime Knight of Malta, he sees the trip to Lourdes and the local Mass for the Sick as “our signature event. That’s what the Order of Malta focuses on… It’s an experience. We take them to the baths. Whatever they want to do, spiritually, we do.” The sick that are able to visit Lourdes are known as malades – French for the ill. Gilmore estimated that each year the Order of Malta is able to sponsor about a thousand malades and their caregivers on a journey to Lourdes.
The Mass for the Sick at Saint Columban began with a sprinkling rite, in which the concelebrating priests blessed the entire congregation with holy water. Later, after the homily, all of those who were ill were invited to come forward for a special Anointing of the Sick blessing with oil and a laying on of hands. This blessing was a key part of the Mass, for it is through the application of oil and the laying on of hands that the power of God comes upon those who are in need of healing. This act goes back centuries, to the early Church. The Epistle of Saint James in the New Testament speaks of such blessings: “Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint [him] with oil in the name of the Lord,” (James 5:14). With this action, the Diocese of Orange community marks its continuity with the faith of the Church, going all the way back to the age of the Apostles.
After the Mass ended, vials of water that came from the grotto in France were distributed to the congregants, for future blessings and as a remembrance of this sacred and special event.