On Saturday, I attending a presentation by Father Tad Pachoczyk of the National Catholic Bioethics Center on the end of life ethical issues. After an informative and interesting talk, he reminded the priests, deacons and lay Catholics that the best way to minister to the sick and dying is by: (a) bringing them to the sacraments; (b) guiding them to understand the value of redemptive suffering. When we unite our suffering with the suffering of Christ, it becomes a powerful force and witness.
I fear that too often we focus on cheering the sick up, trying to make them feel better--which is not a bad thing. But Father Tad reminded me that it is okay--or rather a good thing--to say, "I know you are in pain. I know you are suffering. Jesus knows that too and accepts this gift of your suffering for the salvation of souls and to promote his work on earth."
When we do that, we've helped the sick person realize that (s)he is not just a victim of illness but an agent of Christ--and that makes all the difference in the midst of suffering.
I remember being with my mother in her last days. She was in a nursing home, and there was a prayer group of residents that met weekly. At the meeting, my mother said that while they were all unable to do acts of charity, they could all pray--for each other, for families, for the needs of the world. That was their role and purpose during this time in their lives. She really got it, and I was proud.