VATICAN CITY—Convinced that “medicine is a ministry,” Church officials say health care and the sick has become m a rapidly growing area of pastoral activity in recent decades.

“Suffering is the Jubilee. It is the source of indulgence,” said Archbishop Javier Lozano Barragán, president of hte Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care workers.

Around the world, Catholic hospitals and dispensaries have increased from about 18,000 in 1980 to more than 22,000 today, and Church-run homes for the elderly and chronically ill have jumped from 9,600 to 12,000. Catholic organizations now account for more than 24% of those caring for people with HIV/AIDS.

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II has made care for the sick a dominant theme in his teachings and his travels.

For Dora Vassallo, the head nurse at a Rome hospital run by the Hospitaller Order of St. John of God, Catholic institutions put a different spin on health care.

“Here you're not a number, you're not anonymous,” she said Jan. 28.

At St. John Calybita Hospital, Vassallo said such individual attention is evident among staff as well as for patients.

“I have contacts at public hospitals, and the thing they bring up when we talk or when they visit me is the fact that we all know each other here,” she said.

“There's less attention to the sick, a different approach at public hospitals,” she said.

Brother Pascual Piles, St. John of God prior general, said caring for the sick means more than just providing medical treatment.

“Our mission is to bring human values into the hospital,” he said.

On a practical level, their mission translates into making hospital patients feel at home. St. John Calybita's rooms are equipped with air conditioning, telephones, televisions, minirefrigerators, safes and hair dryers. Visiting hours are not restricted, meaning friends and family can sit with patients at any hour of the day or night.

To care for spiritual needs, several brothers actually live at the hospital so that patients have someone to talk to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We listen,” Brother Piles said. “But if someone doesn’t want to discuss religious themes, we must respect that.”

Appreciated in China

While the order numbers only 1,500 brothers, St. John of God health care centers are found in 47 countries.

China, whose state-sanctioned Catholic Church does not recognize the Pope, is the latest addition to the order's roster of health care centers.

Although relations between the communist country and the Vatican are tense at best, St. John of God's health care approach has cut across political and religious lines.

“Two years ago, China's health minister went to our hospice in South Korea and was [impressed] by the facility,” Brother Piles said.

After negotiations, the new hospice in China, near the North Korean border, is set to open later this year.

“Chinese officials also discussed spiritual aspects with us. Anyone (at the new hospice) can talk about that if they want to, but we would not impose it,” he said.

Catholic, Not Corporate

As more and more hospitals become corporate-run entities where turning a profit can take precedence over patients, the Church is trying to re-personalize health care and expand the notion of what it means to be “well.”

Father Antonio Guerrero Soto of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers said that his office's greatest challenge in the third millennium is “to humanize health care.”

“First of all, the concept of health must be broader. Health is not only physical and social well-being. There is also the spiritual dimension.”

Archbishop Barragán said Catholic health care workers are set apart from others by their empathy with the sick.

“Being a doctor is almost a religious profession. Catholic doctors must be aware that they have a mission, which Christ entrusted to them, to continue the Lord's work. Medicine is a ministry.”

Humanizing health care also means rejecting certain scientific breakthroughs, such as cloning and some genetic engineering, that go against Church teaching.

“We must utilize the advantages of technological advances that construct life instead of death. We need a culture of life against the culture of death,” said Archbishop Lozano Barragán.

Papal Support

Defending human life and caring for the sick are among the recurring themes of Pope John Paul's 21-year pontificate. He instituted a Pontifical Commission for Health Care Workers in 1985, upgrading it to a full-fledged council in 1988.

But it was perhaps the very first day of his papacy that illustrated just how close the sick are to his heart.

On Oct. 17, 1978, less than 24 hours after his election, he went to a Rome hospital to see his compatriot and longtime friend, Bishop Andrzej Deskur, who had suffered a stroke four days earlier.

It has since been referred to as Pope John Paul's “first pastoral visit.”

In the years since then, between an assassination attempt, five major operations and a debilitating neurological disease, pastoral care for the sick has struck a personal note with the 79-year-old Vicar of Christ.

Msgr. José Redrado, secretary of the council, said the “Pope has experienced suffering very deeply, not only in thought, but also in body and heart. He is a pope marked by lived, experienced suffering; he will be the best teacher because, beyond speaking with his lips, he will speak from the heart.”

(From combined wire services)