By Jeff Grant, The Catholic Sun
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz — Nearly 500 worshippers, a number of whom live with chronic physical and mental conditions gathered for the Diocese of Phoenix’s annual World Day of the Sick Mass of Healing and Reconciliation Saturday, Feb. 5; a week before the annual observance dedicated to prayer for the ill and infirm around the globe.
The Mass, celebrated at St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish in Scottsdale, was highlighted by the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and a homily by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted that focused on finding God’s goodness in the midst of physical suffering.
Dozens of individuals, some pushed in wheelchairs or who moved gingerly using walkers or canes, made their way down the aisles of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s nave to receive the sacrament in which the bishop or a priest offers a blessing to each individual while anointing that person on his or her forehead and the palms of his or her hands with holy chrism oil. Bishop Olmsted was joined in the rite by Fr. Michael Straley, pastor of St. Bernard, and several other priests.
The Mass is organized and coordinated annually by the Sovereign Order of Malta, one of the world’s oldest Catholic lay religious organizations. Established in 1113, the Order is guided by its motto Tuitio Fidei et Obsequium Pauperum — nurturing, witnessing and defending the faith, and serving the poor and the sick.
During the Liturgy of the Anointing, the bishop and concelebrating priests laid hands on a group who came for anointing. The bishop then offered a prayer of thanksgiving over the holy oil. The celebrants blessed each recipient with these words as they anointed the person: “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit,” and “May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.”
The experience touched some of the anointed in a deep and profound way.
“Inside, I just have an overwhelming feeling; I can’t explain it in words. I feel really blessed,” beamed Maura Lenz, 59 of Phoenix. A regular worshipper at St. Raphael in Glendale and St. Paul in Phoenix Lenz suffers from dystonia, a state of abnormal muscle tone resulting in muscular spasm and abnormal posture.
“It was a very uplifting experience, very fulfilling, it was emotional, too,” explained Trish Mahoney. A first-time participant in the healing Mass, Mahoney suffers from frequent open wounds, stemming from psoriatic arthritis. She also has osteoarthritis and poor circulation below her knees, conditions developed in her late 50s that keep her in a wheelchair. Mahoney was invited by her friend since college, Mary Madonia, a parishioner of St. Timothy in Mesa who signed the pair up after seeing the Mass’ promotion on the Diocesan website. A friend of Mahoney’s since the 1970s, when the pair met in college, Madonia had attended the 2020 Mass, but continues to be moved by the experience.
“I knew how fulfilling it was. It was very powerful,” she said, her voice beginning to break. “It was very difficult, It touched a lot of emotions, seeing the most infirm individuals receive anointing.”
The rite immediately followed a homily in which Bishop Olmsted emphasized physical suffering and the emotional and spiritual pain that often accompanies it as blessing and a vehicle by which Christ’s followers carry out His command to aid and pray for the sick.
Pointing to the day’s responsorial Psalm – Psalm 89:1 which find the psalmist able to praise God because of His faithfulness in spite of earthly trouble – the bishop said the words carry “a particular resonance” when proclaimed at a Mass of Healing and Anointing.
He pointed as well to the final words of the day’s Recessional hymn, Oh God Beyond All Praising. “Whether our tomorrows be filled with good or ill, we’ll triumph through our sorrows and rise to bless you still: To marvel at your beauty and glory in your ways,
and make a joyful duty our sacrifice of praise,” the bishop recited.
“The gift of faith – believing in the love of Jesus, both in sickness and in health – is a wondrous blessing that the world cannot understand. In facing serious illness and the possibility of death, the gift of faith in Jesus shines with ever greater radiance. Even without fully understanding when serious illness has approached – in the love of Christ, when accepted in hope and trust in divine mercy – our faith overflows with meaning and even with song,” the bishop said.
“We cannot find meaning in life until we learn to trust the Lord no matter what. An opportunity to trust and to grow in trust of the Lord arises when we are seriously ill. Illness forces us to cope with pain and to face the unknown. It can also prompt us to question God’s love. Our patience is put to the test as is the patience of those around us. At the same time, the experience of illness opens the door for us to encounter Jesus in a more profound and personal way. For whenever we are ill, or in great need, the Lord draws near.”
“Even those around the ill are affected,” he added.
“The mystery of human suffering touches every human person. We all our familiar with pain. It stirs up our fears. We may even feel it is impossible to go on. However, in the face of hopelessness and fear, the Holy Spirit is within our hearts, stirring up within us an even keener awareness of the mercy of God.”
This year marks the 30th observance of World Day of the Sick. Announced in 1992 by St. John Paul II as a way for believers to offer prayers for those suffering from illnesses, the day is also used to encourage prayers for caregivers of the ill and those in the health care field. John Paul II, as pope, introduced the day a year after being diagnosed, himself, with Parkinson’s disease. It was first observed a year later in 1993. The day falls every year on Feb. 11, which also is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Attendance was off this year, compared with 2021, when the Mass resumed in person following a year’s hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Next year, the Mass will return to its longtime site, Ss. Simon and Jude Cathedral, where renovations have pushed the rite out to Scottsdale the past two years. Order of Malta Western Association Board of Directors member, Timothy Jefferies, attributed the drop-off to continuing news coverage of the pandemic, specifically the illness’ Omicron variant, which is considered less lethal than other forms but highly contagious. “We had the same number of RSVPs as last year, but people were panicked,” he explained.
As it has been regularly, the service was live-streamed on the Diocese’s Facebook page and YouTube channel and broadcast throughout Arizona on AZTV 7 and globally on EWTN.
Those unable to attend or who preferred to remain away could submit prayer requests online established by the Order. Jefferies said the number of prayer requests remained high, with an estimated 2,000-3,000 received. The Order will carry those requests on its annual pilgrimage to Lourdes, the town in southern France where the Blessed Mother appeared in a series of apparitions to St. Bernadette, a 14-year-old peasant girl, in 1858. The grotto where the visions occurred is said to contain water with special restorative health properties. A total of 70 miraculous healings have been recognized at Lourdes since St. Bernadette’s visions, the latest in 2018.
The prayer requests will be deposited in a bin at the grotto during the Order’s next pilgrimage during the last week of April, Jeffries said. The nature of the requests has been pretty consistent, with submissions citing a variety of illnesses, but also mentioning other topics. “Troubled marriages, children with great challenges such as suicidal tendencies and drug use, The prayer requests are highly indicative of the swath of challenges the faithful face,” he noted. Requests can be submitted online until April 24.
Knights and Dames with the Order escort a group of the ill – referred to as malades – on the pilgrimages. Malades are chosen annually for the trip in the year ahead after submitting applications to the Order. While the application deadline for 2022 has past, the Order is accepting requests to be included in the 2023 pilgrimage.
Jeffries said that period likely will close “around the end of October.” The malades’ trip is funded “100 percent” by the Order, which has room for each to being a traveling companion. “We look to companions to pay or raise the funds,” Jeffries explained. “We have found it is very easy for companions because it is so compelling.” At least one former malade attended the Mass at St. Bernard.
Maura Lenz made the 2014 pilgrimage and came to Scottsdale in part to reconnect with Knights and Dames who she was with in France. She also welcomes the chance to speak with others suffering conditions similar to hers. “I’ve been disabled for 37 years, and, I believe at one point, I felt there was a reason and believe God chose this path so I could help other people in what they are going through.”