“In every suffering brother and sister that we embrace,” Pope Francis said in 2013 while visiting Saint Francis of Assisi Hospital in Brazil, “we embrace the suffering body of Christ.” Perhaps such encounters with Christ are the motivation behind the Holy Father’s consistent practice of reaching out to the sick.
Even during his pre-papal ministry, Jorge Bergoglio regularly knelt down before people in pain, offering the tangible touch of compassion. His long-standing tradition has been to wash and kiss the feet of oft-forgotten individuals, including AIDS patients, mothers in a maternity hospital, prison inmates, people who are paralyzed, elderly people, and individuals with cerebral palsy, annually at the Holy Thursday Mass. He has continued the tradition as pontiff, but his embrace of the sick has not been limited to this ritual.
Pope Francis kisses patients while visiting hospitals such as the one mentioned above and the Bambino Gesù children’s hospital in Rome. He also regularly gives special attention those with physically disabilities. For example, when some 600 people in wheelchairs lined the front rows of a Vatican auditorium, the Holy Father embraced all of them, one by one.
“Caught up as we are in a frenzy of doing, of producing,” Pope Francis said on the 2015 World Day of the Sick, “we forget about giving ourselves freely, taking care of others, being responsible for others.” Thus, even amid his busy schedule, he makes time for personal visits to suffering friends. When Cardinal Mejía had a heart attack, the brand-new pope scooted over to the hospital to comfort his friend, visiting him three more times before the cardinal’s death that December.
Such care for the sick models the compassion Saint Francis showed eight centuries earlier, as Pope Francis is well aware. Not only does the Holy Father imitate his namesake in this way, but he encourages us to do the same. “To embrace, to embrace,” he emphasized at Saint Francis Hospital, “we all have to learn to embrace the one in need, as Saint Francis did.”
Francis could be severe with his own body but could readily adjust fasting for other friars. 2 Celano 22 reports that a friar once cried out in the middle of the night that he was dying of hunger. Francis directed the other friars to get up and join him in eating with this friar so that he would not be embarrassed. Francis then preached to them about discernment.
Words of Comfort from Francis & Francis
Though I should speak with the tongue of men and of angels, and have not charity, nor show to my neighbor an example of virtue, I should be of little service to him, and none to myself. —Saint Francis of Assisi
May you always be attentive to charity. Each individual Christian and every community is missionary to the extent that they bring to others and live the Gospel, and testify to God’s love for all, especially those experiencing difficulties. Be missionaries of God’s love and tenderness! —Pope Francis