In a meeting with an Italian organization dedicated to helping those in poor health go on pilgrimage, Pope Francis reminded the ill and infirm that they have a true role in the Church.

"Dear sisters and brothers who are unwell, don't consider yourselves only as objects of solidarity and charity, but feel integrated fully into the life and the mission of the Church," he told the members of U.N.I.T.A.L.S.I., the National Italian Union for Transporting the Sick to Lourdes and International Shrines, on Nov. 9.

"You have your place, a specific role in the parish and every ecclesial sphere. Your presence, silent but more eloquent than many words, your prayer, the daily offering of your suffering in union with that of Jesus crucified for the salvation of the world, patient and even joyous acceptance of your conditions – these are a spiritual resource, a patrimony for every Christian community," the Pope explained.

The pontiff then went on to emphasize that work of Christians with the sick is not "welfare aid or philanthropy, but a genuine announcement of the Gospel of love, and a ministry of consolation."

"You seek to be the look that welcomes, the hand that raises and accompanies, the word of comfort, the embrace of tenderness," he continued.

"Every sick and fragile person can see in your face the face of Jesus; and you also can recognize in the suffering person the body of Christ."

Pope Francis underscored the need for this mutual understanding to affect not just the Church, but society at large.

"The poor, also the poor in health, are a richness for the Church: and you…have received the gift and the responsibility to accept these riches, in order to help them be valued, not only for the Church herself but for all of society."

This can be difficult in the modern world which "is much more inclined to hide physical frailty, to consider it only as a problem which requires resignation and pietism or at times discards people."

In fact, the Pope said, "it is a matter of really valuing the presence and the testimony of weak and suffering persons," not merely as people to be served, "but as active subjects of this same apostolic activity."

The U.N.I.T.A.L.S.I. organization is particularly dedicated to bringing the sick to Marian shrines. Pope Francis focused on this aspect of their spirituality, reminding members to "imitate the maternity of Mary, the maternal care that she has for each of us."

He turned to the biblical account of the wedding at Cana, in which Mary finds that the newlywed couple has run out of wine for their guests, and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus orders. Christ then turns water into wine for everyone.

"This intervention of Mary with her son shows the care of Mary towards mankind. It is a careful attention to our most real needs: Mary knows what we need!" the Pope exclaimed.

"She takes care of us, interceding with Jesus and asking for each of us the gift of 'new wine,' that is love, grace, that which saves us."

Christians should see in Mary the model of a believer who "always intercedes and prays for us, especially in the hour of difficulty and need, in the hour of distress and confusion, and above all in the hour of sin."

The pontiff then led the audience in a Hail Mary prayer before concluding the meeting. U.N.I.T.A.L.S.I. is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year.