We Embody Christ By Caring For the Sick, and By Enduring Our Sickness

Ilya Repin (1844-1930), “Raising of Jairus’ Daughter”
Ilya Repin (1844-1930), “Raising of Jairus’ Daughter” (photo: Public Domain)

My God, I do not want to be a Saint by halves.
I am not afraid to suffer for Your sake.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux

What makes Catholic healthcare “Catholic?” Many would say it’s the Catholic tradition of moral decision-making that the Church has refined and relied on throughout its long history of caring for the sick. You want an abortion? You want to put grandma out of her misery? How about a sex change operation? Don’t plan on accomplishing any of those things at a Catholic facility. And if you want a catalog of other medical interventions that Catholic outfits refuse to offer, you need look no further than the USCCB’s Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (ERD).

However, there’s a lot more to Catholic healthcare than mere negation — more than simply what we will not do in the pursuit of wholeness and wellbeing. In fact, the positive dimensions of the Church’s healthcare legacy — that is, what the Church hopes to accomplish, what she intends — far outweigh the negative dimensions. Ultimately, the Church’s focus in all of its various healthcare operations — the nursing homes, the hospitals, the outpatient clinics, the medical missions — is Jesus himself. “The mystery of Christ casts light on every facet of Catholic health care,” reads the ERD. It sees “Christian love as the animating principle of health care” and “healing and compassion as a continuation of Christ’s mission….” Indeed, the entire Catholic healthcare enterprise can be viewed as a direct implementation of Jesus’ own words in Matthew 25: “I was sick and you visited me.”

I was reminded of this last weekend when I had the privilege of attending the Practice and Presence conference at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Billed as a “Gathering of Christians in Healthcare,” the annual ecumenical event brings together a wide variety of Christian healthcare practitioners – nurses, doctors, therapists – as well as chaplains and others in ministry who all share a vision for Christocentric caregiving. It’s sponsored by Duke’s Theology, Medicine, and Culture (TMC) Initiative which has as its goal, in the words of Co-Director Dr. Farr Curlin, “to understand what God is calling us to do as stewards of His gift of medicine in our particular contexts.” The weekend included presentations and workshops, shared prayer and worship, and I found it all profoundly encouraging with regards to my own efforts to pass on that Christocentric vision to my nursing students.

During one of the breaks on Saturday, I headed out of the Divinity School into the sunshine to check out Duke’s beautiful campus. My first stop was the University’s spectacular and newly renovated Chapel, located right next to the Divinity School. Its Collegiate Gothic style is reminiscent of the University of Chicago’s Chapel, but with a major difference. Whereas Chicago’s Chapel is the tallest campus edifice, Duke’s Chapel is distinguished by its location: It’s the veritable heart of the University. “I want the central building to be a church,” said the school’s primary patron, James Buchanan Duke, back in 1925, “because such an edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and women who come here.” That’s precisely the influence that Dr. Curlin and the TMC Initiative are seeking to revive and bolster in the healthcare arena.

Similarly, it’s the influence that I try to highlight for my own students when we tour St. Joseph Regional Medical Center each January. They’re nervous, yet eager for their first acute care clinical experiences, and they’re particularly excited about seeing the E.R., the I.C.U, and the operating theaters. Nevertheless, before I take them to see all those places, I crowd them all into the Chapel just off the vestibule and separated from patient care areas. There, with some 30 eager nursing students ready for trauma and surgeries and jazzy nursing experiences, I lay out for them in no uncertain terms that this room, this humble chapel, is the center of the hospital (eyebrows go up; I go on). Unlike public hospitals, I tell them, everything that is attempted and accomplished at a Catholic healthcare facility is informed by and refers back to what happens in this place of worship.

Since most of my students are evangelical Protestants, I also take a moment to tell them what does happen in a Catholic chapel – that Jesus is honored and worshipped, but also made truly present. It happens in the Mass and the Eucharist, and then, leading out from that chapel into the rest of the building, it happens when nurses and doctors take care of the sick. It’s not abstract; it’s not a sentimental nicety. It’s a Biblical truth – it’s Jesus himself.

Back to Duke. After spending some time in the Chapel, I strolled the grounds, including the marvelous gardens – almost like a gratuitous Central Park in the midst of a grand academic metropolis. Naturally I got lost, and as I was trying to find my way back to the Divinity School, I stumbled across a small patch of cultivated earth near the Admissions Office. Bordering the walk was a small monument which read:

In memory of Yancey Preston Few who built this little garden.
After a long and hopeless illness, he died at 16 years of age.
A highly gifted boy, he loved flowers and he loved life.
September 12, 1922 – March 23, 1939.

It seemed particularly fortuitous that I came across this simple memorial during my conference, for it testified in an especially poignant way to yet another dimension of Christian healthcare – namely, that illness need not diminish our humanity, that we can still flourish in the midst of pain and suffering.

When I later had a chance, I turned to the internet to track down any information I could about Yancey Few, and I discovered his actual burial site. It turns out the boy’s tombstone underscores my interpretation of his garden memorial. The grave marker reads in part:

A highly gifted boy, he died at 16 years of age.
But schooled in the discipline of suffering
He lived long enough to become wise and good.

Here’s a tragedy that was transformed into a triumph – but how? The gravestone gave me a clue: the names of Yancey’s parents, “William P. and Mary R. Few.” William was President of Durham’s Trinity College from 1910 until 1940, and it was he who saw to it that the institution was renamed Duke University after James Duke made an enormous financial gift in 1924 – an endowment that provided for not only the Chapel’s construction, but many other buildings besides. Few, Duke, and other leaders associated with the school were all dedicated Methodist Christians, you see, and presumably President Few shared Duke’s commitment to putting Christ at the center of the University’s ethos and purpose.

Thus, we can envision young Yancey Few growing up in a particularly devout home, where Christ was constantly honored and emulated, and where all things – joys and sorrows, upturns and setbacks – were understood as potential grist that God could use for our sanctification.

Even deadly disease? And at such a young age? Evidently the Few family thought so. Besides, if Jesus truly is our God and savior, then there’s nothing he can’t use to nudge us along in the direction of heaven – even an untimely illness and demise.

This is what our Catholic tradition refers to as the redemptive value of suffering. “On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the ‘sin of the world,’ of which illness is only a consequence,” the Catechism teaches us. “By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion.”

Thus, even when disease and death can’t be avoided, there’s always hope and meaning in the Catholic healthcare enterprise: Not only can practitioners embody Christ as they care for the sick, the sick can also embody Christ in how they endure their sicknesses – which, in turn, further informs the manner in which caregivers approach their task. As the ERD affirms, Catholic medicine and healthcare sees “suffering as a participation in the redemptive power of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection” and even death, in this view, can be seen as “transformed by the resurrection, as an opportunity for a final act of communion with Christ.”

There’s no question that we must strive to cure disease, alleviate suffering, curb pain, and promote health as healthcare workers and institutions. But when we can’t? All is not lost, for everything can be redeemed in Christ – just as it was for Yancey Preston Few.

If I was teaching nursing at Duke? You can bet it’d be Yancey’s garden that we’d visit for inspiration each year, no question.