Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72 (3) August 2022

Faith in Medicine

Towards a spirituality of healthcare

Fr James McTavish, FMVD

Fr James McTavishFr James, a Verbum Dei Missionary priest, moral theologian and former surgeon, recently gave a talk to the Portsmouth Catholic Medical Association on “Spirituality for health care workers. How do my religious beliefs influence my everyday work?” He has summarised here some key points from the input.

In this short article I will mention three helpful concepts that can help integrate our spirituality and our work in healthcare: experience, prayer, and mission.

Our experiences

Healthcare professionals may wonder about the possible connection between their spirituality and their work. Looking at their own EXPERIENCES may be a helpful place to start. The status of human experience as a theological locus was given more credence in the document Gaudium et Spes of the Second Vatican Council, where it was recommended that issues could be examined under the light of the Gospel and human experience (Gaudium et Spes, n. 46). Looking at our own human experiences we would not want to fall into an extreme subjectivism, but rather to give value to the incarnational aspect of our faith. Too much heaven-ward gazing may be a recipe for neck pain and a faith that is disincar- nated - the Word did become flesh after all.

I remember going as a priest to bless an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) that had recently been refurbished. I was asked to visit one particularly ill young man. Standing by his bedside surrounded by the latest hi-tech equipment made me reminisce momentarily about my stint on ICU as a surgical registrar years before. As I was about to leave, the patient’s mother asked me to pray for her son. As I did so, finishing with the sign of the cross, the young man also crossed himself. I was taken aback as I just presumed he was unconscious. I realized that even when I was a surgical registrar all those years ago, the same God I was praying to now was ever-present then. I realised that God was always present even in those moments when I was not so much. The words from Genesis were quite apt - “God was in this place and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). What experiences have you had dear reader, that help reveal the presence of God in your work- place? I am always encouraged reading the vocation story of St Peter. The vocation experience he had was not in a temple or synagogue, but at this workplace, at the lakeside of Galilee.

The deep breath of prayer

Prayer is a privileged place to experience God. He is already present in our lives but sometimes we are just a bit too busy to notice that. Nowadays we are so lucky as we have unrivalled access to the Word of God, delivered straight to our smart- phone or Ipad, in our own language. There are many helpful spiritual apps, podcasts, even TED talks to strengthen our spiritual life. As Pope Francis underlined, the world and the Church “urgently needs the deep breath of prayer”(Evangelii Gaudium, n. 262). In a time of Covid pandemic, the need for healthy, deep breaths became more urgent and apparent. For health it is important to remain well oxygenated. The soul needs to breath also, and “prayer is the oxygen of the soul” (Padre Pio). Jesus breathed on his disciples to refresh and recreate his disciples. We need to be recreated every day. Come Lord, breathe your breath of life on us!

Prayer can help us persevere in challenging situations. Recently, M. Therese Lysaught et al. published an online article on resilience in care-givers in the Linacre Quarterly, the journal of the Catholic Medical Association in the United States.  The full title was “Building Caregiver Resiliency in Global Health: Embodying the Catholic Social Tradition in the Face of COVID- 19.” She and her colleagues showed the importance of faith and spirituality in building resilience, and the role of prayer practices such as the examen, Lectio Divina, contemplative, and meditative prayers.

Prayer also helps us in our on-going process of growth and conversion. We are all a work in progress. And it is in prayer that our Lord himself will outline the ways we can respond to him in our daily life. Fr Jaime Bonet, the founder of the Verbum Dei Missionaries wrote: “Christ's will is that I can respond to what he asks of me; without measuring the difficulties and obstacles and, of course, not staying in the minimums… If one prays, is it possible that he does not hear Christ who says to him: “Help me; is my destiny in your hands, save me for your love!”? Obedience to Christ is not reduced to minimums. If obedience is the measure of love, you will see that the Lord will give you many suggestions in prayer and the strength to do them.”(So Will Your Descendants Be, Topic 80, 1980). In listening to the Spirit, we can begin to understand more clearly our mission and what we have to do.

Getting ready for our mission

When we consider the vastness and challenge of our mission, it helps us see the necessity of prayer! Alone we cannot do it! And Jesus reminds us, “Remain united to me and you will bear much fruit. Cut off from me you can do nothing” ( John 15:4-5). It’s true! The union with Christ is our umbilical cord, and it is better to stay connected to the source.

Mission is for each and every one of us. Without it, we easily fall into o-mission (zero mission!) “Everyone who breathes . . . has a mission, has a work. We are not sent into this world for nothing; we are not born at random . . . God sees every one of us; He creates every soul, He lodges it in the body, one by one, for a purpose. He needs, He deigns to need, every one of us. He has an end for each of us . . . As Christ has His work, we too have ours; as He rejoiced to do His work, we must rejoice in ours also” (St. John Henry Newman). Regarding healthcare workers, Pope John Paul II specified this mission field more precisely: “Your vocation is one which commits you to the noble mission of service to people in the vast, complex and mysterious field of suffering” (1989. To Representatives of the Italian Catholic Physicians, March 4, n. 2).

There are many new and emerging aspects of mission in healthcare. Some are complex and challenging such as gender issues, neuro-ethics or transhumanism. We need to keep abreast of the signs of the times (see Matthew 16:3). In its charter for healthcare workers, the Vatican reminds healthcare workers of the need of constant formation and updating: “Advances in medicine and the constant appearance of new moral questions, therefore, require on the part of the health care worker a serious preparation and ongoing formation in order to maintain the necessary professional competence” (Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers 2017, New Charter for Health Care, n. 5). Now is not really the time to rest and retire - we hope to have plenty of time for that upstairs. The Catholic voice needs to continue to resound loudly in our society. What can you and I do to contribute to this prophetic task of the Church? Our Lord is counting on us.

Summary questions:

  1. What experiences have I had in my work as a healthcare professional where God was revealing himself? For example, in the choice of work or speciality … in that particular patient..
  2. How can my prayer life grow in quantity and/or quality?
  3. How can I see more my work as my mission? In what area is the Spirit calling me to continue my formation and ethical updating?