Evangelii Gaudium and Missionary Disciples in Medicine

“Christ’s presence really can transform everything. The Gospel really does make all things new”

Christ Healing the Mother of Simon Peter’s Wife by John Bridges, 1839

Here is the address given by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln to the Catholic Medical Association’s 85th Annual Educational Conference on Thursday. It is reprinted from the Southern Nebraska Register.

Esteemed members of the Catholic Medical Association, dear friends in Christ,

I am very glad to be with you for this 85th Annual Educational Conference of the Catholic Medical Association. And it is especially good to be with you in Washington, DC, the capital of our nation, and the heart of so much of Catholic life in the United States.

Just about three miles east of here is the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, one of the most magnificent churches in America, dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the patroness of our country. Perhaps some of you had the privilege to be at the basilica a year ago last month, when Pope Francis canonized St. Junipero Serra.

St. Junipero Serra died in 1784, just six years before Washington DC was founded. He was a Franciscan missionary in California. He founded 21 missions up and down the California coast, where native Californians heard the Gospel, had recourse to justice as California was colonized, and had access to new kinds of education and healthcare.

The missions of St. Junipero Serra are often criticized for being a part of the Spanish colonization of Native American lands. But the real story is much more complex. European colonization of the United States is a fact in history. In the face of that fact, the choice of Junipero Serra was to become a leaven for the Gospel in a new society—to represent the rights of all people, to serve the dignity of every human person, to call all people, from every society, to truth, to repentance, and to holiness in Jesus Christ.

In fact, since the fifteenth century—more than five hundred years ago– missionaries in the Americas have given themselves heroically to bring Christ to a world in need of his mercy. And since the founding of our nation, Catholics, and other Christian believers, have gone to great lengths to build the foundation for a society animated by the charity, mercy, justice, and peace of life in Jesus Christ. For more than 500 years, the missionaries of the Gospel have worked to build a culture of life in this land.

Here, in our nation’s capital, we need to remember that Christians have been working to build a virtuous community in America since long before the idea of the United States was ever formulated.

But the truth is that the values of those Christian missionaries, and the virtues they cultivated in the indigenous people of this land, have been largely replaced in the United States.

37 years ago this week, in 1979, Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. When she accepted the award, she told the world that “the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion.” She told them that abortion “is a direct war, a direct killing.”

“If a mother can kill her own child,” Mother Teresa famously asked the world, “what is left for me to kill you and you kill me – there is nothing between.”

In the 37 years since Mother Teresa spoke, the values of the Gospel have been replaced in America by technocratic moral reasoning and scientific reductionism. This is nowhere more obviously true than in the field of medicine.

Our nation has become convinced that we are only the sum total of what we can observe, and the only meaning to our lives is the meaning we choose to assign. Our nation has become convinced that the beautiful and complex human person is, in the words of Francis Crick, “nothing but a pack of neurons.”

Jacques Monod, the evolutionary biologist who won a Nobel Prize a few years before Mother Teresa, wrote that “Man has to understand that he is a mere accident.”

Abortion, and morally relativist technocratic reasoning, have ushered in abysmal practices of assisted reproduction, and euthanasia, and the rejection of our very identities in the false “treatment” of gender dysphoria. Technocratic reductionism only leads to radical individualism, and the triumph of strong over the weak. In the few decades, healthcare has abandoned the protection of your conscience, severed your real relationships with patients, and lost faith in the potential of medicine to bring real hope and possibility to people who need it.

The new values of Western society are part of the reason why Pope Francis wrote his beautiful exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, three years ago. In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis tells us that we are all called “to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization” in the modern world.

The pope says that our work as evangelists should be marked by the “joy” of life in Jesus Christ. He says that “the Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”

As Catholic missionary disciples of Jesus, our responsibility and mission is to witness to our own rebirth in Jesus Christ, and to invite others, in truth, charity, and joy, to be reborn through life in Christ.

Pope Francis says that Evangelii Gaudiumis a call for a “missionary option… a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything.”

“Transforming everything” is an ambitious goal. But it is obvious to many of you that we need a kind of total transformation in our national life, and in the work of healthcare that you are dedicated to.

Without a total transformation, the future of healthcare in America is grim, at best. In fact, without a total transformation, the future of America is pretty bleak. But God gives us the grace and the mission to change that.

Transforming a broken culture is not an easy task. That is the reason why Evangelii Gaudium tells us that we need to become men and women of prayer before anything else. The pope invites us to “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ,” so that we might “receive the love which restores meaning to our lives.” Pope Francis tells us that the transformation of the world for holiness begins with the transformation of our hearts for holiness.

Christ, and Christ alone, is the great and eternal healer. If your medical practice is to bring the deepest kind of healing, it will be because you are a conduit of the mercy of Christ the Healer. And to be a conduit of grace, you must receive the grace of God, in prayer and in the sacramental life.

To know God’s voice, you must be men and women who seek to hear him every day—in Sacred Scripture, in private devotion, and especially in the sacramental life. Regular confession, and daily Mass, whenever possible, transform us in faith and life. Nothing prepares to be missionaries if we are not prepared as disciples of Jesus Christ and his Church.

Holiness, attained from the starting point of deep friendship with God, is a palpable reality—and the sense of that palpable reality discredits the lie that man is a biological machine, operating in a system in which there is nothing more than mechanics and genetics.

If we wish to transform the culture of death—the throwaway culture, as Pope Francis calls it, each one of us must begin on our knees, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, the source of all healing, and all truth.

The second point of Evangelii Gaudiumis that our entire lives must be missionary lives. Your colleagues hunger for the joy of Christ’s real mercy. Your patients hunger for the hope of life in the Lord. And “transforming everything” requires us to articulate the joy we have of life in Christ, and to make real invitations to those we know. To invite Catholic colleagues to daily Mass. To begin a Bible study in the hospital. To form friendships based on real things, in which we can hear the needs of our friends, and respond with the mercy of God.

And on a broader level, becoming missionaries requires that you give public witness to truth. Pope Francis said in 2013 that medical professionals must “be witnesses and propagators of the culture of life.”

Evangelii Gaudiumsays that there are two kinds of public witness to truth. The first is the witness of charity. Catholic physicians are among the most generous I know. They treat the poor, often without expecting anything. They make time for struggling families. They accompany the weak, the marginalized, the disabled. This kind of witness speaks to the reality of life in Christ, and to the joy of live in Christ.

But the other kind of witness is speaking, publicly, in medical circles, and in our communities, and in the public square—the media– about the danger of falsehood in medicine, and about the beauty and integrity of the human person.

These kinds of missionary witnesses—mercy, and truth—can’t be separated. Each supports and gives credibility to the other, and credibility to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are in the midst of the most dispiriting Presidential election that any of us can remember. None of us are happy with the choices we have, because none of our choices reflect integrity or truth. Each of us has to discern how best we can support the culture of life in this election, but the choices are not good. But there are two lessons for us to learn in this election.

The first is that we cannot expect the government to transform our culture. We cannot expect that voting for “the right person” will transform everything. Of course, we need to work in the political sphere to build good policy. But culture really transforms politics. And hearts transform culture. Lasting renewal of Christian culture—lasting renewal of the civilization of love—comes through the transformation of one heart at a time, one person who experiences the joy of the Gospel, and then another, and then another. And that kind of transformation requires a real investment, on our parts, in the real lives of other people. We can’t hide that responsibility. At the end of our lives, we’ll be judged by our fidelity to that mission.

The second lesson is that world is hurting, confused, misguided, and broken. Christ works in our pain, confusion, and brokenness. This election evidences a truth: there has never been a moment when the Gospel is more sorely needed. Without it, the consequences for our nation, and for our children, born and unborn, will become ever more dire. And in pain, and confusion, and brokenness, there has never been a moment when the world will be more open to the Gospel. Our nation is desperately looking for answers to very big questions. And Jesus Christ is the answer to every human question ever posed.

Christ’s presence really can transform everything. The Gospel really does make all things new. That is the lesson of Evangelii Gaudium. Pope Francis says that “it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.”

It is vitally important that you medical professionals preach the Gospel in your hospitals, and offices, and medical schools, without hesitation, reluctance, or fear. May the Lord, who transforms everything, transform your hearts with courage, zeal, and joy.

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