“Physically I suffer a lot, but my soul sings,” 18-year-old Chiara Badano told her mom as she battled one of the most aggressive and painful forms of bone cancer. I recall the story of this saintly teenager because her life offers deep insights into suffering and because the Church observed the World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11.
You may not have heard about this saintly Italian girl, who died in 1990 at the age of 19, but she is truly a model of Christian suffering.
How many of us can repeat her words when we are suffering from far less serious things? The truth is that many of us, including Christians, avoid suffering. Blessed Chiara did not seek it out, but her attitude was, “If you want it, Jesus, so do I.”
Visitors to Chiara’s hospital room arrived expecting to cheer her up, but when they walked in they saw that she was filled with peace and confidence, so much so that the founder of the Italian Church movement Focolare gave her the name Chiara, meaning “Luce” or “Light.”
This kind of transformation of suffering is impossible without God and a profound relationship of love with him. In his message for the 2014 World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis points out that Jesus “did not remove illness and suffering from human experience but by taking them upon himself he transformed them and gave them new meaning.”
Because of his passion, death and resurrection, our suffering and even death can serve as a vehicle and gateway to everlasting happiness. Blessed Chiara knew this reality and expressed it to her mother, saying, “When you’re getting me ready, Mom, you must not cry, you have to keep on saying to yourself: ‘Chiara Luce is now seeing Jesus.’”
Thank God most of the pain we experience on a daily basis is not caused by a terminal illness. But regardless of the kind of suffering we are going through, allowing Christ to purify and convert us, to increase our trust in him, is an opportunity that we should not miss.
Moments or periods of trial are also an opportunity for those of us who are not experiencing suffering. These are occasions for what Pope Francis calls drawing “near with tender love to those in need of care.” He explains that “when generous devotion to others becomes the hallmark of our actions, we give way to the heart of Christ and bask in its warmth, and thus contribute to the coming of God’s kingdom.”
Pope Benedict XVI also described this mission of mercy in his 2012 message for the Day of the Sick, “More than mere words, what sick people need is human warmth and sincere closeness.” This is a chance to love Christ in the sick and suffering that we should not miss.
We have the perfect model of being Christians who bring this tender love to the sick and the poor in the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Pope Francis’ description of why Mary is the “mother of all the sick and suffering” is so beautiful and compelling that I must quote it for you here.
“Mary, impelled by God’s mercy which took flesh within her, selflessly hastened from Galilee to Judea to find and help her kinswoman Elizabeth. She interceded with her Son at the wedding feast of Cana when she saw that there was a shortage of wine. She bore in her heart, throughout the pilgrimage of her life, the words of the elderly Simeon who foretold that a sword would pierce her soul, and with persevering strength she stood at the foot of the cross of Jesus. She knows the way, and for this reason she is the mother of all of the sick and suffering.”
As you encounter suffering in your life or in the lives of others, I urge you to turn to Mary for inspiration and intercession. She is able to stand with us beside our crosses and accompany us on the journey toward the resurrection. Mary can help us turn to Christ, who “destroyed the solitude of suffering and illuminated its darkness.” Mary, mother of the sick and suffering, pray for us!