Pilgrimages to the Bedside Patients Awaiting the Aid of New Evangelizers

By Fr. Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD

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Professor, School of Bioethics, Regina Apostolorum Pontifical university, Rome, Italy

ROME, NOV. 28, 2012 (Zenit.org).- On November 15-17, the Pontifical Council for Heath Care Workers organized the 17thInternational Conference at the Vatican on the topic of “The Hospital, Setting for Evangelization: a Human and Spiritual Mission.” This conference focused on the Catholic hospital from the perspective of history and mission of, ethics and humanization, and spirituality and diaconate of charity. 

Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of this Pontifical Council, explains that the core of Jesus evangelical message consists in to go and teach and to cure the sick.  The healthcare setting and especially the Catholic hospital can become a privileged place for this evangelization to happen.  In this Year of the Faith, we need to seek the face of the Good Samaritan in healthcare workers.

The Christian understanding on suffering is a truth that can offer an authentic relief to those in anguish.  Since we do not “live on bread alone,” there is always a need for love in addition to material healing.  The Polish prelate reminds us that due to secularization, a gap has been developed between technological progress on the one hand and respect human dignity on the other.  In addition to a technological or managerial solution to illnesses, Christians are called to offer them solidarity, and the hospital can be a profound expression of “teandricity”—a place where God and man encounters each other.   

The Hospital invented by Catholics

It is a little known fact that hospital is a Catholic invention.  In the Roman times, Christians in hiding began caring for those who were injured, solders and gladiators alike.  When Christianity became legal, they began to extend this care for the sick in houses of “hospitality”, which means places for strangers or guests.  This tradition was carried on in the monasteries for pilgrims, the poor and the sick.  The first hospital like what we have today was founded by Pope Innocent III in the Middle Ages, which became the model of hospitals all over the world.  The first medical schools were also founded around the same period in Italy.  At the time, hospitals were run by religious orders and there was an extraordinary rule they follow:  The sick was considered their Lord, and those who provided care were servants!  In those days, most of the care was undertaken by the clergy, monks and religious. Their model of care was primarily not technical, but spiritual and pastoral.  As we shall see, this changed with modernity.

Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, President of the Pontifical Council of the Promotion of the New Evangelization, spoke on the role of the Catholic hospital to bring the presence of Christ to others in today’s context.  He emphasized that the New Evangelization is not something added from the outside, but emerges from the very nature of the Church.  It requires a certain renewal from our relationship with Jesus so that we can become effective witnesses of the Risen One.  In spite of the effects of secularization, the healthcare setting can be a place for this to happen because here, the defense of human dignity expressed in the loving care of the whole person can be an antidote to the narcissistic and utilitarian culture.

In addition, illness can be a moment of crisis that provokes the modern man to come out of his superficiality. It is a moment to question the meaning of life and realize that the promise eternal youth is ephemeral.  The Christian witness of “when I am weak, then I am strong” can be a powerful message to accept suffering and our human limits.  Here, the sick requires the witness, closeness and compassion of another, and not just the presence of hi-tech machines.  Hospital is the place to celebrate the human weakness and the strength of the human spirit.  It can show that humanization and communion can overcome loneness, self-pity and closing upon oneself.  The sickbed can also be a place of encounter with the sacred in the sacraments of reconciliation, anointing of the sick and even baptism. Thus, the hospital can become a temple of humanity and the crossroad of peoples. 

Challenges of the modern hospital

Most speakers mention the challenges facing the hospital today.  Even though the modern hospital is a continuation of the medieval one, medicine has evolved into a rigorous and sophisticated science that often requires professional management.  At times, the bureaucratic and managerial aspect can be in contrast to the receptive hospitality of the ancient world.  This sometimes means closure of services, opening more profit-oriented ones, merging with secular hospitals or receiving government funding for the hospital to survive.  All these can at times enter into conflict with the Catholic identity and mission of serving the poor and the disadvantaged.  This is related to another challenge comes from the fact that the scientific technical aspect of medicine is deemed more important or even incompatible with the humanistic or spiritual mission of caring and hospitality.  Hence, the success of a hospital is often measured in terms of size, technology and cure rates rather than compassionate care towards the patient’s integral needs.  Finally, there is a diminishment of the presence of chaplains, priests, religious and committed laity in the hospital which further dilutes this Catholic identity and depersonalizes care.

Italian bioethicist Franceso D’Agostino notes the difficult task of ethics facing Catholic hospitals.  As mentioned before, the role of the doctors has changed from that of a friend who welcomes strangers (hospitality) to that of a technician scientist expert. This tension is seen at the level of the identity of the doctor, the hospital and ethics.  The very fact that doctors are no longer guardians of medical ethics is an indication of this separation. Secularization of the hospitals into public or denominational affiliation further sanctions this separation of the neutral scientific dimension from the spiritual one. Today, there is a fracture between the notion of the classical Hippocratic doctor and a contracted, corporal, technical medic.  While ethics is intrinsic to first, it is alienated in the latter paradigm.

What can be done to humanize the Catholic hospitals? 

Several speakers also addressed our response as Catholics.  There is a need to better training of the Catholic healthcare providers and pastoral agents in the areas of theology, philosophy, bioethics, and spirituality. They should be imbued with the Catholic identity which is based on virtues and not on profit.  The social teaching of the Church underscores the principle and the virtue of solidarity to create a more just social order, where the needs of the most vulnerable of society are attended to.  Catholic hospital should also realize that fidelity to the moral norms of the Church is not an obstacle but a fulfillment of their mission.

There is a need to exercise robust stewardship which may mean investment in areas of care which may not be economically profitable. The hospital needs to ask why a certain service is provided in the first place, and then make decisions based on prudence, justice, stewardship, and universal destination of goods.

We also need to promote new models of health delivery that places the person in the center. Integral healing means that spiritual accompaniment should not be separate and distinct from ordinary care, but should meet the patient’s holistic needs where they are at.  The success of palliative care for terminal patients is an example that such integrated care is possible and welcome. 

A cloud of witnesses

St. Giuseppe Moscati, St. Ricardo Pampuri, St. Gianna Beretta Molla, St. Anna Schäffer and the Servant of God Jérôme Lejeune are some saints who have contribu
ted to healing ministry in the Church.  During the two day conference, we heard many testimonies from different parts of the world on how the Church continues to engage in this important ministry—from Asia, Africa, Oceana, America, and Europe—with different problems and similar challenges. The work is carried out by different religious groups and orders, staff and volunteers, chaplains and administrators, in the mission territories and in the modern metropolis, in remote villages as well as through telemedicine, in the laboratory and in the hospital chapel.  There is no lack creative projects and new initiatives to improve the health situation of the sick, as well as their spiritual attention. 

Catholic laypersons today are entrusted with this task of showing the face of Jesus in their ministry of the sick and dying. In the healthcare setting, personal witness of the love of God can be a work of mercy and an excellent medium to share our faith.  This is evangelization through loving care as a manifestation of our experience of God’s love in our lives. Pope Benedict’s addressed the participants on the last day and said:

Now more than ever our society needs “good samaritans” with a generous heart and with arms open to all with the awareness that the “measure of humanity is essentially determined in relationship to suffering and to the sufferer” (“Spe salvi,” 38). This “going beyond” the clinical approach opens the dimension of the transcendent to you.

Archbishop Fisichella reminds us that the New Evangelization involves in making more evident the Image of God in us, and the hospital offers us a golden opportunity, where one’s mind is open to truth of the human condition and one’s heart is open to recieving love. In this sense, the hospital can also become a sanctuary where the sick can participate in the mystery of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Hence, we are called to make our pilgrimage at the bedside, where the sick are awaiting new evangelizers to come to their assistance

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