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Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 61(4) November 2011,  8-9

Great Medical Lives: Can Doctors be saints?
Dr Adrian Treloar

This is one of series of articles on great medical lives.

Already published in this series,
St Elizabeth of Hungry, a nurse and
Professor Jerome Lejeune the man who discovered the cause of Down'syndrome.

DoctorOn my ward recently, the domestic came up to me and gave me a pamphlet written by Frank Duff entitled “Can we be saints?” It’s a lovely pamphlet, which set me thinking about the link between our vocations and our journey towards heaven.

Frank Duff points out that saints are often thought of as people who do extraordinary penances and work miracles. But the ample opportunities for penance at work are in no way extraordinary, and few of us do miracles.

Frank Duff then gives his definition of a saint as “One who, with the object of pleasing God, does his ordinary duties extraordinarily well.” This actually sets out rather well what a Catholic doctor nurse or health worker is expected to and should do. We are not paid to convert our patients (and indeed attempts to impose faith upon vulnerable people are both wrong and often counterproductive). But we are there to provide excellent clinical care with the best possible treatment and support. This will be achieved by diligence, the pursuit of excellence and a consistent reliability which delivers safe, effective and competent care. No Catholic doctor can be proud of what they do if it does not conform to the highest standards of health care.

A Siant isOn the other hand, in our work we are also there to support, nurture and develop in our patients many virtues including those of trust and forbearance. In doing this, we will often nurture our patients through times of great crisis. It is well recognized that good spiritual care can do a great deal to improve outcomes from health care episodes both for the patient and also for their families. Enabling access to spiritual care may also be an important part of the care that we offer.

But underneath all this, with the huge stresses and strains of a good medical life, the hope of one day becoming a saint requires a strong spiritual life. Frank Duff tells us that

There are also temptations. We are told that:

Despite these temptations and our weaknesses, doctors and nurses can and should aspire to be saints. Most of all we will do this by doing our ordinary jobs extraordinarily well.

But, on the other hand, we can never be saints at work. All saints are dead. Even if others may think we are saints, we must never put on the mantle of sainthood. Humbly we must accept the understandings that our faith brings us and we must apply our faith to produce the best possible outcomes for our patients. A halo worn at work is a dangerous thing indeed. Halos are shiny nice things, but if you wear one even for a moment at work, you can be sure that it will be tarnished, dented and in the bin before you know it.

Finally, perhaps the greatest failing of those of faith is to think that they can rely upon their faith alone to set them out as clinically excellent from the rest the profession. Those who shelter behind their faith can be pretty ropey clinicians.

In all we do, may we aim to do it extraordinarily well.


  • Can we be saints, by Frank Duff. Published by International centre for the Legion of Mary, Dublin.
  • St Elizabeth of Hungary.  Dr Anthony Cole . Catholic Medical Quarterly, 2010 60 (4) 31-33
  • A Doctor For All Seasons: Jerome Lejeune. Catholic Medical Quarterly, 2011 63 (3) 4-6.