For 20 years the Catholic Church has celebrated World Day of the Sick on February 11 — the day on which the church commemorates the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes — under the sponsorship of the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.
World Day of the Sick calls the church to pray intensely and sincerely for those who are sick and infirm, especially those in hospitals and nursing homes. It is also a day on which the church recognizes and honors all those who work in Catholic health care and serve as caregivers in hospitals and nursing homes. Charitable care for the sick has been a major part of the mission of the church for centuries.
As religious congregations entered the United States, they brought their commitment to serving the sick and infirm. The Ursulines worked in a hospital in New Orleans in the eighteenth century, before the region was a part of the United States. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Sisters of Charity became the first to staff an American hospital, the Baltimore Infirmary, later the Hospital of the University of Maryland, in 1823. In the nineteenth century, Catholic hospitals were often among the first institutions established on the western frontier
The growth of Catholic health care mirrored the growth of the nation. In 1872, there were about 75 Catholic hospitals; by 1910 there were 400. This important ministry of the church continues on despite facing the challenges of declining numbers of religious sisters, increasing competition, burdensome government regulation and rising costs. Catholic hospitals remain one of the largest providers of health care in the United States.
Pope Benedict XVI in his message commemorating the World Day of Prayer for the Sick, stated: “In the generous and loving welcoming of every human life, above all of weak and sick life, a Christian expresses an important aspect of his or her Gospel witness, following the example of Christ, who bent down before the material and spiritual sufferings of man in order to heal them.” Present in all 50 states, Catholic health care facilities serve millions of sick and injured Americans of every race and creed every day as committed men and women bend down before the “material and spiritual sufferings of man” to heal them.
However, more significant than sheer numbers of patients is the grand legacy of Catholic health care providers—from frontier medical stations to Civil War field hospitals to modern health care campuses—is the witness to the church's perennial commitment to care for those in need with compassion and respect. Let us offer our prayers on World Day of Prayer for the Sick for all those who suffer in sickness but also to the committed men and women who serve them every day with love and provide them with dignity.