Following in the Medical Footsteps of St. Luke — and Padre Pio

Planned osteopathic school’s graduates will bring the light of Catholic truth and bioethics to health care.

Catholic teaching will enlighten the training of osteopathic doctors at a proposed medical school in Atchison, Kansas.
Catholic teaching will enlighten the training of osteopathic doctors at a proposed medical school in Atchison, Kansas. (photo: Shutterstock)

As he assists doctors at a Missouri hospital as a medical scribe, Benedictine College senior Joe Roberts, 22, is getting experience that will help him become an emergency physician. Along with working in emergency medicine, he hopes to one day use his faith and knowledge of Catholic bioethics to help a hospital system more fully embrace the culture of life.

Roberts graduates from the Atchison, Kansas, college next spring and probably won’t wait to start his formal medical training until a proposed Catholic-focused medical school opens on the Benedictine campus in 2026. But he’s not ruling out attending the St. Padre Pio Institute for the Relief of Suffering, School of Osteopathic Medicine because he loves the idea of training faithful doctors who share his hopes for medicine.

“I do think [the proposed school] is going to transform medicine,” said Roberts, who is from Littleton, Colorado. “The hope for medicine to change, I think, comes with schools like this and students, like my classmates and myself, who want to really just go back to how medicine should be — and that’s to heal and restore relationships.”

If plans to establish the St. Padre Pio Institute for the Relief of Suffering, School of Osteopathic Medicine continue to go forward — its initial step was last month — its students will be the first in the world to receive training as osteopathic medical doctors with a grounding in Catholic theology and bioethics in the model of St. Pio’s care. The Kansas college already has a well-recognized nursing school.

“Catholicism and the practice of medicine in faith are integral, part and parcel, to the medical school,” said Dr. George Mychaskiw, the proposed school’s founding president and CEO and an osteopathic physician who specializes in pediatric cardiac anesthesiology.

“This is a medical school that is unapologetically and joyfully Catholic, that will stand for the sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death, and will put forth the clear Catholic position on the morality of certain practices of medicine,” added Mychaskiw, who is based at the Ochsner-LSU Health Science Center in Shreveport, Louisiana.

The proposed school will be an independent, licensed, accredited, governed and financed entity co-located on the campus of Benedictine College. While it seeks funding and accreditation, the school has already received the support of Benedictine and Church leaders, the student and Atchison communities and Catholic osteopathic physicians.

St. Pio medical school agreement Benedictine College
Seated left to right: President Stephen Minnis of Benedictine College and Jere Palazzolo, president of Catholic Healthcare International; Father Tim Nelson, M.D., a member of the Catholic Healthcare International Board, is on the right; and Dr. George Mychaskiw, a board-certified pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist who has been instrumental in the development of four colleges of medicine, is on the left. | Courtesy of Benedictine College

The medical school completes the vision of Catholic Healthcare International (CHI) to expand St. Pio’s legacy of faith and health care in the United States, an effort named Casa USA, after the 1,000-bed hospital the saint founded that opened in 1956 in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy.

Also part of Casa USA are plans for a prayer campus and hospital replicating St. Pio’s Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza (“Home for the Relief of Suffering”) that will include a home for the brain injured and a center for religious liberty for medical professionals. The other facilities are being developed in the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan.

St. Pio focused on relieving suffering while acknowledging its redemptive, salvific and emotional and spiritual aspects, said Jere Palazzolo, CHI’s founder and president and a hospital administrator who lives in St. Louis.

Padre Pio, the well-known Capuchin friar who bore the stigmata for 50 years until his 1968 death, saw each patient individually, which aligns with the more holistic osteopathic philosophy, Mychaskiw said, adding that he hopes the school will train as many as 180 compassionate doctors per year.

“We need faithful Catholic physicians taking the good news to people who need it most,” he said, “people the American health system forgot about.”

The school’s founding comes as the number of students attending the 38 U.S. accredited osteopathic medical schools has grown 77% over the past decade, according to a 2022 report by the America Osteopathic Association (AOA).

Osteopathic doctors, or D.O.s, use the same conventional medical tools — including x-rays, pharmaceutical drugs and surgery — as M.D. or allopathic doctors, but have a different philosophical focus on more holistic health and prevention on all parts of a person, including their mind, body and emotions, according to WebMD. Osteopathic doctors also use a system of physical manipulations and adjustments in diagnosis and treatment, and 57% work in primary care, according to the AOA study.

Overall, there are 178,259 osteopathic physicians and students in the United States, according to the AOA study. By comparison, a 2019 report from the American Association of Medical Colleges revealed there are 620,520 active M.D. doctors.

The idea to establish a Catholic medical school near a faithfully Catholic U.S. college campus came around 2009, as CHI was seeking approval from leaders of Padre Pio’s hospital for the Casa USA idea.

In a conversation with CHI for an informational brochure, Cardinal Raymond Burke mentioned the importance of training faithful doctors. “The St. Padre Pio Institute for the Relief of Suffering will train generations of physicians who understand and foster life, from conception to natural death, who love as Jesus loved and who are faithful to the magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church,” he commented this summer. “It is a noble and just cause.” Cardinal Burke is one of CHI’s episcopal advisers and incumbent patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.

Mychaskiw read about the Casa USA plan and the goal of starting a medical school and contacted Palazzolo. Mychaskiw, an Eastern Rite Catholic, was interested in founding a faithful Catholic osteopathic medical school using the model he developed while founding four independent medical schools in proximity to larger college or university campuses.

The other medical schools, including Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, focus on areas of societal need for physicians, he said.

After approaching several other faithful Catholic schools, Mychaskiw and Palazzolo chose Benedictine. The college’s president, Stephen Minnis, immediately saw the synergy between the college and the proposed medical school, Palazzolo said.

A faithful Catholic medical school named for St. Pio, a patron saint of healing, will form physicians to maintain their faith and relate it to the practice of medicine in a secular society, Minnis said. It also will offer quality medical education as well as a focus on Catholic medical ethics and other Church teaching not offered at secular schools.

“It also adds another level of prestige to the college’s reputation for success and excellence,” Minnis said, noting also that the independent medical school’s marketing efforts will also build awareness of Benedictine.

The medical school will automatically admit qualified Benedictine students, and Minnis said he expects an increase in the college’s enrollment of biology, chemistry and pre-med majors.

Not all Catholic medical schools in North America include faith in their programs, but the St. Pio medical school will be the only medical school in the world that is in accordance with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, explained Mychaskiw, referring to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities. In addition, the proposed school also will offer significant coursework in Catholic bioethics, theology of the body and theology of suffering, and students will receive spiritual direction in their own faith tradition.

Students will be taught clearly the Catholic moral positions on abortion, euthanasia and other practices, Mychaskiw underscored, adding that he is working with Benedictine to enable students to receive a master’s degree in Catholic bioethics along with a medical degree from the medical school.

After the first two years of clinical education, students will train in the National Christian Clinical Network of hospitals and clinics, with doctors who are practicing, faithful Catholics, and complete rotations at the Casa Sollievo della Sofferenza in Italy.

The medical school also will work with Catholic health-care systems to develop residency programs in the areas most relevant to Catholic ethical concerns, including OB-GYN, psychiatry, pediatrics, family medicine and internal medicine areas, Mychaskiw said.

The proposed medical school will cost at least $70 million, Mychaskiw said. Another $50 million will be needed for a building.

Benedictine College’s commitment to renewing and transforming American culture through its education and formation makes it an ideal location for the medical school seeking to form future Catholic physicians, said Archbishop Joseph Naumann, of Kansas City, Kansas.

“Today more than ever, we need a Catholic medical school committed to providing future doctors with scientific and academic excellence, high-quality training in medical ethics anchored in Catholic moral principles, and sound spiritual formation,” he said.

Lester Ruppersberger, a retired osteopathic OB-GYN doctor from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, called the future graduates of the proposed school the future of health care in the U.S. They will learn early in their careers the ethical and moral truths about issues such as contraception, which he learned only after 20 years of practice, said Ruppersberger, who served as the Catholic Medical Association’s 2016 president.

“To know that these medical schools are starting out upfront philosophically and spiritually with being dedicated to the teachings of the Church,” bodes well for the future, he said, adding, “Any hospital that is modeled after the Casa in [Italy], that hospital will also subscribe to the same principles, and you will know which physicians will protect the lives of patients and not do abortions and not participate in physician-assisted suicide.”

Brendan Rhatican, an osteopathic physician in his second year of residency in Lexington, Kentucky, said he also would have benefitted from courses on faithful bioethics in medical school but instead had to learn about them on his own. The need for them in medicine is great because secular bioethics are philosophically and anthropologically bankrupt, he said.

“Christianity has so much to offer bioethics and medicine,” said Rhatican, who is specializing in radiology in part because other specializations may pressure him to violate his conscience. “I just feel like the time is so right for it, when no one can stop from making ethical decisions, but [many don’t know] how to think about even the most basic ethical dilemmas, and the Church has so much to offer.”

An unapologetically Catholic medical school will not be without critics, Palazzolo predicted, but it could revolutionize health care.

“The medical school completes this whole concept that we have, the whole mission, because it allows us to bring faithfully trained physicians out into the community around the world,” he said. “It’s going to be the grassroots. They’re going to go out into the community, into the hospitals and have that influence that this is the way that Catholic health care should be provided and delivered.”