'Blessed is he who considers the poor!'

In times of pain and suffering, the believer is blessed who trusts in the Lord and meditates on his saving passion and Resurrection

At the General Audience in St Peter's Square on Wednesday, 2 June, the Holy Father commented on Psalm 41[40], the prayer of a sick man betrayed by his friends. The following is a translation of the Holy Father's Catechesis, 22nd in the series on evening prayer and given in Italian.

1. One reason that impels us to un­derstand and love Psalm 41[40] which we have just heard is the fact that Jesus himself quoted it: "I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen; it is so that the Scripture may be fulfilled, 'He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me'" (Jn 13:18).

It was the last evening of his earthly life and in the Upper Room, Jesus was about to offer the best morsel to Judas, the traitor. He thought back to this phrase in the Psalm, which is indeed the supplication of a sick man, abandoned by his friends. In this ancient prayer, Christ found the words and sentiments to express his own deep sorrow.

We will now attempt to follow and to elucidate the whole plot of this Psalm, uttered by a person who was certainly suffering an illness, but especially from the cruel irony of his "enemies" (cf. Ps 41[40]:6-9) and his betrayal by a "friend" (cf. v. 10).

Suffering, a path of purification

2. Psalm 41[40] begins with a beati­tude. It is addressed to the true friend, the one who "considers the poor" [weak]: he will be rewarded by the Lord on the day of his suffering, when he is lying "on his sickbed" (cf. vv. 2-4).

The heart of this supplication, howev­er, lies in the following section where it is the sick person who speaks (cf. vv. 5-­10). He begins his discourse by asking God's forgiveness, in accordance with the traditional Old Testament concept of a pain corresponding to every sin: "O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against you!" (v. 5; cf. Ps 38[37]). For the Jew of ancient times sickness was an appeal to the con­science to begin to convert.

Even if it is an outlook surpassed by Christ, the definitive Revealer (cf. Jn 9:1-3), which is in question, suffering in itself can conceal a secret value and be­come a path of purification, interior lib­eration and enrichment of the soul. It is an invitation to overcome superficiality, vanity, selfishness and sin, and to trust more intensely in God and his saving will.

The wicked attack the sick person

3. At this point, however, the wicked enter the scene: they have come to visit the sick person, not to comfort but to attack him (cf. vv. 6-9). Their words are cruel and wound the heart of the per­son praying, who senses their merciless wickedness. The same experience will be the lot of many humiliated poor peo­ple, condemned to loneliness and the feeling that they are a burden even to their own relatives. And if they occa­sionally hear some words of consola­tion, they immediately discern the false and hypocritical tones in which they are spoken.

So, as was said, the person praying experiences indifference and even harsh­ness on the part of his friends (cf. v. 10), who are transformed into hostile, hateful figures. To them the Psalmist ap­plies the gesture of "lifting the heel", the threatening act of those on the point of trampling upon the defeated foe or the impulse of the horseman prodding his horse on with his heal to make him ride over his adversary.

Our bitterness is profound when it is the "friend" we trusted, literally in He­brew: the "man of peace", who turns against us. We are reminded of Job's friends: from being his companions in life, they become indifferent and hostile presences (cf. Jb 19:1-6). In our prayer resounds the voices of a crowd of peo­ple forgotten and humiliated in their sickness and weakness, even by those who should have stood by them.

God will once again reveal his love

4. Yet the prayer of Psalm 41[40] does not end in this gloomy setting. The person praying is sure that God will ap­pear on his horizon, once again reveal­ing his love (cf. vv. 11-14). He will offer his support and gather in his arms the sick person, who will once again be "in the presence" of his Lord (v. 13) or, to use biblical language, will relive the ex­perience of the liturgy in the temple.

The Psalm, streaked by pain, thus ends in a glimpse of light and hope. In this perspective, we can understand how St Ambrose, commenting on the initial beatitude of the Psalm (cf. v. 2), saw in it prophetically an invitation to meditate on the saving passion of Christ that leads to the Resurrection. Indeed, this Father of the Church suggests intro­ducing into the reading of the Psalm: "Blessed are those who think of the wretchedness and poverty of Christ, who though he was rich made himself poor for us. Rich in his Kingdom, poor in the flesh, because he took this poor flesh upon himself…. So he did not suf­fer in his richness, but in our poverty. Therefore, it was not the fullness of divinity that suffered... but the flesh…. So endeavour to penetrate the meaning of Christ's poverty if you want to be rich! Seek to penetrate the meaning of his weakness if you want to obtain salva­tion! Seek to penetrate the meaning of his crucifixion if you do not want to be ashamed of it; the meaning of his wounds, if you want yours to heal; the meaning of his death, if you want to gain eternal life; and the meaning of his burial, if you want to find the Resurrec­tion" (Commento a dodici salmi: SAE­MO, VIII, Milan-Rome, 1980, pp. 39-41).

L'Osservatore Romano June 9, 2004
Reprinted with permission