Thomas McKenna is no stranger to Catholic action. The San Diego resident and self-described lay activist has dedicated his life to serving the Church. He is the executive director of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy as well as the president of Catholic Action for Faith and Family.
And now he has a new title to add to his name: founder and president of the St. Gianna Physicians Guild.
“The idea was to have a program that would make doctors a little more Catholic,” he says, explaining the group’s beginnings. The guild, he adds, represents “a chance for them to bring their faith a little more into their lives.”
Named after St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian mother, wife and physician who was canonized in 2004 by John Paul II, the guild seeks to unite faithful Catholic medical professionals so they can defend Catholic values “in a public way,” according to the organization’s stated mission.
McKenna worked closely with Archbishop Raymond Burke, former head of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and now prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura (the Vatican’s highest court), in formulating this new medical mission.
Both the archbishop, who serves as the guild’s episcopal advisor, and McKenna knew they had the perfect role model in St. Gianna to inspire pro-life medical practices.
“As a physician, St. Gianna combined both excellence in medical art and Christ-like love nurtured through the daily reception of holy Communion, Eucharistic adoration, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Marian prayer,” Archbishop Burke told the Register via e-mail from Rome.
He added: “She is a particular inspiration to physicians who are married, for she is a model of how to remain faithful and generous in one’s vocation, while at the same time caring for the sick.”
In 1962 Dr. Molla died days after giving birth to her fourth child, Gianna Emanuela. Earlier, during the pregnancy, her doctors had discovered a uterine tumor.
Instead of choosing the “safest option” recommended by her physician — removal of the uterus, including the baby developing within — the good doctor chose to have only the tumor removed. She was willing to die to give her baby a chance to live.
In April of 1994, the day after she was beatified, Pope John Paul II highlighted Gianna’s pro-life witness. “Her testimony is heroic, a true hymn to life, in violent contrast with a certain mentality pervasive today,” he said. “May her sacrifice inspire courage in those who participate in the movement for life, in order that each human being’s inviolable dignity be recognized, from birth to a natural death.”
In 2004 her canonization drew 100,000 people — including her husband, children, granddaughter, siblings and a number of her patients.
To Heal and Protect
At the heart of the St. Gianna Physicians Guild is an enshrinement program, which centers on a ceremony: A framed picture of St. Gianna holding one of her children is dedicated in churches, hospitals and, especially, physicians’ offices and clinics. The dedication can be conducted by a bishop, priest or deacon.
Last fall, Dr. Rachel Kaiser, an emergency room physician at St. Thomas Hospital, the only Catholic hospital in Nashville, Tenn., invited McKenna to speak and organize an enshrinement.
When Kaiser approached St. Thomas’ vice president of mission, Jerry Kearney, she found him supportive of St. Gianna’s presence in the hospital. “We want to promote the role of Catholic physicians,” says Kearney, “and so this is a fitting place for this shrine.”
Nashville Bishop David Choby led the enshrinement, which brought together Catholic doctors from around the area and a group of medical students from nearby Vanderbilt University. The image of St. Gianna was dedicated outside the hospital’s chapel.
Part of the ceremony involves inviting doctors to join the guild and offering them an opportunity to take the Catholic Hippocratic Oath.
Composed by Dr. Paul Morrow, vice president of the guild, this document is an updated version of the original secular oath, which is believed to have been written in the fourth century B.C. by Hippocrates, “the father of Western medicine”; since the 1970s, that oath has been replaced by modern versions or other oaths altogether.
The Catholic oath reaffirms the Church’s teaching against contraception, abortion and euthanasia. It is a way, says Morrow, for doctors to publicly profess and be accountable in their practice of the Catholic faith.
Kaiser was one who gladly took the oath in Nashville. “For me,” she says, “the oath was a way to give a public witness that I want to practice medicine within the framework of the Church.”
Just Getting Started
Since the enshrinement ceremony at St. Thomas Hospital, the Nashville chapter of the St. Gianna Physicians Guild, under the leadership of Kaiser, has hosted several events, including a Lenten evening of recollection. Kaiser estimates that this drew 25 active members and 100 or so prospective members.
McKenna hopes the guild’s good showing in Nashville will serve as a model for other medical communities to follow. Membership in the guild is free, and his office is already inundated with requests for enshrinements, information and presentations on St. Gianna’s life. The founder is putting together an enshrinement kit with a framed picture of St. Gianna, as well as the enshrinement prayer book, prayer cards and a video on the saint’s life. With this available, he hopes to expand membership and enshrinements beyond the medical setting and include more churches and even homes.
The guild is just getting started spreading this saintly pro-life message, he says, adding that the official membership is now right around 100.
Kaiser notes that the presence of the St. Gianna Guild is timely, given the anti-life forces medical professionals are facing. “The guild allows the Catholic medical community to come together for fellowship,” she says, “and reaffirms the reasons that we are in medicine.”
Archbishop Burke couldn’t agree more.
“It is my hope that the guild will inspire physicians to be courageous heralds of the gospel of life,” he says. “Physicians and all who care for the sick give a particularly eloquent witness to the gospel of life.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from
Green Bay, Wisconsin.
ON THE WEB
Go to CatholicAction.org and click on the “St. Gianna Physicians Guild” tab.