By Frater Viet Quoc Hoang SVD
As part of the formation process, Divine Word Missionaries spend one to three years in a Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP). Through CTP, they become immersed in a culture that is different from the one in which they were raised. The author of this reflection, Divine Word Frater Viet Quoc Hoang, lived as a missionary in Paraguay for two years. He returned to the United States this fall to resume studies at Catholic Theological Union. In this piece, he shares his thoughts on the importance of ministering with the sick and dying.
Everyone, at some time in life, experiences illness and suffering. At other times to a greater or lesser degree, we feel affected by the realities of other people’s illness and suffering. Most doctors often emphasize that abandonment during the time of illness can be worse than lack of medical care and medicines. Another person’s presence, proximity, and interest can be the best medicine.
All Christians, according to their abilities, should take care of the sick—visiting and providing for their needs. The care of the sick and suffering, especially loved ones, is difficult. People sometimes flee from this responsibility to avoid feeling powerless; because to be near and see the pain of others—the suffering and tears—and being unable to do anything to help can be overwhelming. However, visiting the sick can help us to accept and cope with the suffering around us.
Reflecting on my two years in Paraguay, I found that the ministry of visiting the elderly and sick has deepened my understanding of the works of mercy, especially the importance of visiting the sick.
After my language studies in the capital city of Asuncion, I was placed at Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart of Jesus) parish in a city of about 22,000 people named after Doctor Juan León Mallorquín. It was a full-immersion pastoral experience. At first, I was overwhelmed by the need for pastoral visits, especially to the elderly and the sick.
The Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS), who run one of the local high schools, require their seniors to participate in social outreach projects as part of the graduation requirements. A few high school seniors asked me to help them with their projects. I hesitated to accept this invitation at first because my language skills were limited. But then, placing my trust in the Divine Word, I listened to the encouraging words of my pastor, vicar, and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and accepted the invitation to serve.
Oftentimes the visit, this small act of mercy, can give a breather to dedicated caregivers. Usually, not much is needed. Sometimes, it requires only a visit to an elderly or sick person—making conversation and offering assistance by helping with a blood pressure reading, grocery shopping, cleaning the house or reading a newspaper or book to them. If this simple task is done with love, a miracle usually happens. The sick person feels healthier.
Sometimes to calm our conscience and avoid the feeling of powerlessness, we say, “What can I do? Others do so much better.” We might think , “The patient gets tired fast, and if another person has already visited her or him, why do I still need to go?”
But, we cannot escape our Christian responsibility. Anyone can be a volunteer and help the sick. Depending on availability, capacity and personal preferences, we can choose a volunteer opportunity that best fits the rhythm of our lives.
The CTP experience taught me an additional lesson: the difference between being a volunteer and being a missionary. As a Divine Word Missionary, I need to be mindful not only to be a servant for people but to be with them. God’s love, grace and presence are already among the people whom I have been blessed to know.
Missionary work, involves living among the people and seeing the grace of God within them. Through His grace, we are called to open our hearts and eyes to recognize that there are so many people around us who carry the burdens of illness and abandonment. They need our attention and loving care. Whether they are our own family members and neighbors or the people in the streets, we are called to give Christian witness.