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In 2009, I met Fr. Rick Frechette, a priest and doctor with an extraordinary ministry in Haiti. In the midst of unimaginable darkness and chaos, he finds ways to bring love and hope to people who might otherwise never know them.
Fr. Rick does many things, but what stood out to me is his ministry among the sick and the dead. He described a “killing field” of bodies, casualties of the 2004 coup, too many to count and dumped in a heap without dignity. He and others gather there each year to remember the people and pray; to celebrate the Mass and commend them to God. But they do more: “We have to work so that no one is ever thrown into a mass grave again,” he wrote in his book, Haiti — the God of Tough Places, the Lord of Burnt Men. “We have overwhelming numbers of destitute dead. … A team of young adults who have grown up in our orphanage have formed a “ministry of Tobit.” One by one, they are starting to bury our dead. They make the coffins, they dig the graves, they bring the family to the rented ground for burial and prayer (yes, rented graves, until we can afford to buy a cemetery). It makes all the difference in the world to the family, as you can imagine. It is a simple act that gives a psychological and spiritual rock to stand on, in the face of the death of their child” (pg. 29).
The last three corporal works of mercy—visiting the sick and imprisoned and burying the dead—are similar to each other in that they all involve giving dignity to people by sharing ourselves. Each requires us to pay attention to people who are shut away out of sight and very often out of mind. They also require more from us than do the other corporal works, at least on the gut level of person-to-person interaction. Food and water, clothes and shelter are neutral things that everybody needs. They are things that can be given, in person or at a distance. But visiting the sick and imprisoned and burying: those require us to come face to face with people in their pressing need or grief. Illness and imprisonment are afflictions, not lacks to be filled. They can be ugly and painful to look at and be around, even frightening. And often there is nothing we can do except to be there.
That is the point, I suppose. We can be there. Just our presence says, to someone who is suffering or grieving and who may feel abandoned or tempted to despair, “you are valued and loved. You are not alone.”
I feel at a loss around suffering. I don’t know how Fr. Rick does what he does. But I met some of the young adults who help in his work among the sick and the dead, and they give me hope. The things they have seen are the stuff of nightmares to me—yet they are full of joy. It must be for them as it is with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: “I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”
Pray with me,
God of mercy, open our eyes to those who are sick and imprisoned around us. Help us to see you in them. Give us the courage and grace to give them our human presence, to love and serve you in them with joy.
- Who are the sick—in body, mind, and spirit—around me? How can I minister to them?
- How am I called to visit those in prison? There are many kinds of prisons. Who around me is “held captive,” and how? How can I help?
- How have others been present to me in times of death and grief? How can I offer this same gift to others?
© 2016 Sarah Christmyer.