Catholic Health Care – June 2006

First of all I would like to welcome you to Orlando.  And certainly Pentecost Sunday is an auspicious occasion for the leaders of Catholic health ministries in our nation to begin your convention.  Just as the Holy Spirit empowered those first disciples who gather with Mary in the upper room on that first Pentecost, may he empower you to be his witnesses as you carry out your ministries in these challenging times.

But, first, allow me to conduct a short experiment.  When I count to three, I’d all of you to hold your breath and don’t breathe until I tell you.  One, two, three.   O.K. Breathe. As health care professionals, I don’t have to tell you what the consequences would be if you didn’t breathe again.  You would die – for the body needs breath; and a body without breath is a corpse.

Now, in baptism, we became members of the Body of Christ; and once again, on this Pentecost Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus’ body is a living body.  His body was a corpse:  for three days it laid in the tomb.  But on Easter Sunday, he rose from the dead; and he will die no more.  We are members of the Body of Christ – the living Body of Christ.  And if we are to be living members of that Body (and not dead members) then that breath of God, the promised Paraclete, must bring us to life in Christ.  “Receive the Holy Spirit”, Jesus tells us, “as the Father has sent me so now I send you.”  The breath of God makes us alive in Christ. That Holy Spirit is a Spirit of Love – and a Spirit of Truth.  The ancient maxim, Gloria Dei, homo vivens, The Glory of God is man fully alive, is today manifested in that upper room – the tongues of flame testify to the glory of God – and the courageous proclamation of the good news about Jesus testifies that this band of once contentious and fearful disciples has become fully alive.

Whatever we do under the rubric of Catholic Health Care must be animated by that same breath of God, that same Holy Spirit which is God’s promised gift to the Church as she makes her earthly pilgrimage.  St. Paul says:  No one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.  Without that Spirit of Love and of Truth, we will be dead – our works may be fiscally sound, our techniques up to date, our IT state of the art – but as members of the Body of Christ we will be dead, for unless we are faithful to that Spirit of Love and of Truth, we will not proclaim that Jesus is Lord.  Without that Spirit of Love and Truth, we might be health care providers; but we will not be ministries serving the Glory of God or bringing man to fullness of life.

And this of course is the fundamental question that all of you are facing – and you face it in an environment where it is increasing difficult to save your fiscal skins, let alone your souls as Catholic institutions.  The U.S. Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Health Care with its advisory council is keenly aware of the challenges you face.  In a survey of Bishops the preeminent item for discussion between health ministry leaders and bishops was precisely that.  What is it to be “Catholic” healthcare?  What is our Catholic identity?

But, I am not sure, whether that is such a difficult question to answer.  And too often, I think, we frame the question in these terms so as to avoid the real question that each of us has to grapple with as we seek to respond to our baptismal vocation to holiness – at a time and in a place when faithfulness to our baptism is constantly undermined by the spirit of the Age. The prevailing secularism of our time seeks to impose, in the words of Benedict XVI, a “tyranny of relativism” over our ways of thinking as persons and over our ways of acting as professionals.

As I said, I think that to frame the question only in terms of “What is our Catholic identity” is an evasive ploy: one that invites us to seek terms with the Spirit of the Age, terms that involve the negotiation of our surrender. Too often the debate over an elusive definition of “Catholic identity” – and we see this in academia, and of course in politics – is an attempt to have our cake and eat it too.  And thus we give into what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council saw as the great temptation of our time, the separation of faith from life.

Our Catholic identity, if it is to have any coherence at all, must be founded not primarily in adherence to ethical directives, or statements of “core values”, but in our encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  Pope Benedict said at the beginning of his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est: “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Quoting from St. John’s epistle, we have come to believe in God’s love, the Holy Father reminds us that with these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life.  For this reason, later in that same encyclical, the Pope adds:  “The personnel of every Catholic charitable organization want to work with the Church and therefore with the Bishops, so that the love of God can spread throughout the world.  By their sharing in the Church’s practice of love, (the Pope continues) they wish to be witnesses of God and of Christ, and they wish for this very reason freely to do good to all”.  Deus Caritas Est #33

The real question is not “what is our Catholic identity” but rather do we have the confidence and the courage to live and proclaim that new life we have in Christ.  Do we have the courage and confidence simply to be Catholic? In these days, like all bishops I have been busy in my parishes confirming our young people. In my confirmation homily, I tell them a parable about three red beans. I will not go into the details of my story – my M.C. has heard it about 30 times this past month.  But three red beans fall into a garden that is filled with things of every color – except red.  The first, realizing that he is the lone red object in the garden, runs and hides out of fear. The second is ashamed to be different and colors himself with the other colors to disguise his “redness”.  The third realizes that what garden needs is something red to complete it and so stays to make a difference.

For many years now, we have been grappling with the great challenge of our time – secularism.  Again, Pope Benedict has given us a succinct definition of what secularism is.  He calls it a “way of living and being present in the world ‘quasi Deus non daretur’, as if God did not exist”.  God is reduced to the private sphere – not an objective reality outside of our selves and above ourselves, but only a sentiment of our own subjectivity .Such a world is a dark, foreboding world – a world in which man exists only to die. It is precisely to such a world that Christ came.  We heard in the gospel today: Jesus send us out into a world that needs us to make a difference. The goal of all pastoral ministries and the goal of what we can Catholic Health Care is to make God present again in society, in the day to day life of the people we serve. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, as the Father has sent him into the world, he now sends us.

The confidence and the courage to make that difference in a world that hungers and thirsts for God are gifts of the Holy Spirit.  We see the first fruits of those gifts in Apostles who with new found confidence and courage proclaim Christ crucified to those who assembled in Jerusalem on that First Pentecost Sunday.  And on this Pentecost Sunday, we too pray: Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth.

In what has become an industry in which the sick person is increasingly depersonalized and reduced to being the “lung case” in Room 208, or the Medicaid part B in cubicle 2, we can and we must make a difference. Seeking the Glory of God in Man fully alive, we can witness to the priority of the ethical over the technical, of persons over things; we can witness to the superiority of the spirit over matter.  Embracing a Catholic identity born from our encounter with the living Christ, we can with the gift of his Spirit overcome the fears that paralyze us, we can regain the confidence needed to overcome any shame that the ridicule of others may trigger in us.

In the living Christ, the hope of true, full health can be found.  The salvation that he brings is the true response to the ultimate question about man – and that salvation promises a “health” that is more than just a physical or even spiritual well being but one that is expressed in total harmony with God, with self and with humanity itself.  It is a salus, a health, found only through the mystery of the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ, the Christ that breathes his Spirit into our hearts to make us living members of his Body so that might be truly his witnesses and make a difference living “no longer for ourselves but for him, and with him, for others”.