Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 73(3) August 2023

Wounded Healers

Fr James McTavish, FMVD

Fr James McTavishIt is very interesting how the Risen Lord presents himself in one of the resurrection appearances. He appears in a glorious body and shows his wounds. “He showed them his hands and side” (John 20:20) but before doing so, he also says “Peace be with you!” He first tries to reassure them before showing them his wounds. He is resurrected but he still has his wounds. Why aren’t they healed, cured, made whole? He even invites Thomas to place his finger in those wounds. “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe" (John 20:27).

As (Catholic) healthcare workers, we too see many wounds. It is part of our work. We can say the daily bread and butter of our lives. We can “get used” to seeing so many wounds. Wounds not only in individual persons, but also wounded families, wounded communities, or the conse­quences of a wounded society.

Not easy to look at wounds

I remember the first time as a medical student when I got to watch an operation. I cannot remember what the operation was, but I remember what happened. I was there with another medical student, a big rugby player. I thought he looked a bit pale as we walked into the operating room. And sure enough as the surgeon made the incision, my friend fainted! Later on, we gave this big, tough guy a ribbing about it and he took it in good spirits. When you come to work as a doctor, you realize that it is not easy to look at wounds. The first few weeks in an Accident and Emergency attachment makes you convinced of that. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

Jesus shows his wounds

It is interesting to reflect on the connection between the wounds of the Risen Lord, and the wounds we see in the patients. Is there any connection? It might not be that easy to see at first. We need eyes of faith! The first proof we might have of a connection are the very words of Jesus, “I was sick and you looked after me” (Matthew 25:36). We note very carefully that Jesus does not praise us for taking care of a patient in general, but he identifies himself with and in the sick person. This was the clear teaching of Mother Teresa, who would remind carers that when they touch a patient, they are touching Christ Himself. The mantra of Mother Teresa and her Congregation, the Missionaries of Charity, is “You did it to me” - the very words of Jesus (see Matthew 25:40).

If your next patient was ... God

It would be interesting to consider that every wounded patient who comes our way has been sent by God himself. It is a sign of God’s trust. We have already underlined that each patient is Christ himself. How happy this would make us in our work if we really believed this, if we really had faith. As St Paul reminds us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for people” (Colossians 3:23). If you were asked to see, or to operate on a famous person, I think you would be a bit nervous, but very joyful, and extremely honoured. Imagine if it was the Pope himself coming to your clinic or office! How would you treat him? You and all the staff would treat him with the utmost courtesy, dedication and professionalism. And I doubt you would charge him anything! But in faith, in every patient, Jesus himself, God himself comes. It is not always easy to remember this. For this the apostles groaned, “Lord, increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). In an experience of prayer, Fr Jaime Bonet, the founder of the Verbum Dei Missionary order was surprised to understand how much trust God has in us. He understood that God was saying to him, “Jaime, I put myself in your hands... Do with me what you want, whatever it is, I thank you ... because you are my friend, my apostle and missionary” (Fr Jaime Bonet, A Solas, Theme 10).

Our own woundedness

In dealing with the wounds of others, we should not bypass our own woundedness. To help us understand this woundedness, we will turn to a spiritual writer known as Henri Nouwen. One of his books is called “The Wounded Healer.” He contends that we are all wounded. What is that wound? According to Nouwen it is a wound of incompleteness or what he terms “loneliness.”

This incompleteness is a type of restlessness, an awareness that nothing can really fully satisfy or fulfil us totally. Nouwen wrote, “Thus we keep hoping that one day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfil our potentials, the book which will explain everything” (Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1972. The Wounded Healer. New York: Doubleday, 84-85). The truth is we are all not simply “fine” but actually we are unfinished business in this world. How beautiful when we grasp that this unfinished business can be understood as our mission in this world! And as Pope Francis says, we don’t have a mission but we are a mission in this world, and this mission is still not complete (see Francis 2013, Evangelii gaudium. no. 273).

It is akin to a restlessness from knowing that no job can really fulfil us totally, no book or conference can bring radical wholeness, and no one talk can achieve all objectives. No ward round will solve all the medical problems, no position, title or exam brings total completeness, and no one publication exhausts our search. It is saying we are incomplete because we are men and women on a journey. Accepting this aspect of our woundedness, or incompleteness can help us perhaps enjoy more the journey each day, to give thanks more and try to count our blessings. This call to accept our incompleteness, to make it a source of healing seems a challenging one. How can our woundedness bring healing to others?

Fragile clay pots

A biblical image comes to mind, that of the fragile clay pot. When St Paul was writing to the Church in Corinth, he wanted to remind them of the limits of our mortal human condition, but also to encourage them with the awareness that from within our fragility, the immense power of God can shine through. He wrote, “But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). This clay pot is fragile and sometimes has cracks in it. The late singer songwriter Leonard Cohen noted in his song called “Anthem” - “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”

The tension of being wounded healers can be seen in the struggles within us. If we pause for a moment, we can name and recognize them. We have work and we would like to have more time for leisure – then when we have more free time we get bored, end up timewasting, and actually look forward to working again! Or when we see many patients we get tired, but when there are few patients we can feel guilty or less stimulated. Even we clamour for attention of others, but when we get it, we are the first to realize it cannot fulfil us. In relationships, we experience some tensions and turmoil, amidst the harmony. In this way, Nouwen uses pairings like rejected/supported,/abandoned embraced, hated as well as loved, to describe his most prominent friendships. What helped me in becoming familiar with the life of Nouwen is how he didn’t have it all together, but despite this or even through this, his life and struggle, he became a beacon of hope for others.

An intelligent love

Being in touch with our own fragility, vulnerability and woundedness can make us sensitive to the situation of others. When they come to us, or when the Lord sends them to us, we can understand that he is hoping for our response - “I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philemon 21). If the Lord shows us his woundedness in the patients we see, it is also because he is entrusting us with the mission of healing. Healing requires an intelligent response of love. How best to help this patient? How best to structure a clinic or department so it can be more effective? In using all our intelligence to respond it is a way of loving the Lord with all our mind as he asks of us (Matthew 22:37). At times, the wounded Risen Lord will present himself through a situation in the society, not just in an individual person. His risen body is not confined to an individual person, but able to pass through locked doors, can present himself in a more cosmic way. Before we get lost in apparently surreal or ethereal imagery, permit me to list some concrete examples of how the wounds of Christ may present at a structural/societal level.

  • In the wound of abuse, one can see a wounded society and wounded Church. The extent of insti­tutional abuse shows us that there are structural aspects to abuse.
  • The wound of many adolescents, experiencing confusion about their gender identity, undergoing unnecessary surgical operations. We do not have good evidence that this treatment is beneficial, and in fact it may be harmful.
  • The wound of promiscuity and sexual violence ­ one in four men experience violence in same-sex relationships.
  • The wound of gun violence in various societies, especially the United States.

All around we can see a wounded world. We are expected not to merely walk on by, but like the Good Samaritan to be moved with compassion, to act to help heal and save the other. For sure, when it comes to salvation, we are not the Messiah, but the Messiah does ask us to help in the mission of salvation. St. John Henry Newman reminds us all,

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, “Discourse 6. God’s Will the End of Life.”)

Let us not forget to pray

With the call to action, we might just forget to pray. To pray is a verb, and thus an action word too! It helps so much to pray for the wounded realities around us. Prayer is like a blood transfusion in the Mystical Body of Christ. Jesus is the Head of the Body of Christ, and his members form the body and together they are the one reality of the Mystical Body of Christ. Saint Augustine gives a beautiful example of the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ in his homilies on the 1st letter of Saint John. Describing what happens when our toe is trodden upon, the tongue does not say, “you hurt my foot”, but rather “you are hurting me!” But who touched the tongue or hurt it? No one, but “I am knit together with the parts that are trodden upon. How wouldest thou have me not be pained, when I am not separate?” (see St Augustine, 10th homily on the 1st letter of Saint John, no. 8). When we see the wounds around us in the Body of Christ, we should not forget to talk to Christ, the head of the body. For all the situations of suffering in his Body, Christ the Divine Physician has the medicine. It is like a trainee surgeon operating ­ how different when she has her boss nearby to consult and ask for advice when the going gets tricky. In the same way we must not hesitate to ask Jesus, the good Doctor, and head of the body, for advice in prayer about how to respond. As the Head of the Body, Christ is well aware of the situation of each member. With this strong connection to the Head, we can be life-givers in the Body of Christ. Prayer will give us the necessary grace and strength to reach out to others, despite and even in and through, our own wounds and weakness.

Fr Jaime Bonet uses the image of the operating room to show us the vitality of our prayer:

Christ the Head leads you to observe everything. You see the doctor who stands in the operating room, with the lamp and with that powerful light. The doctor is very attentive. Everything, including the doctor, is disinfected. Then, the doctor and his/her entire team, with their eyes fixed attentively on the patient, begin the operation. There you neither speak nor open your mouth. This is our mission, this is prayer! And you get to work, because you find many urgent cases.
Jaime Bonet, Familiares de Dios, Spiritual Exercises given to Married Couples in August 1999, 536-537).

And that prayer can give life to so many people and situations.

Our lives greatly influence the whole Body of Christ because applying Life to some people, it also gives life to the entire Body. I would say that it is something similar to what happens in the human body when an injection is put into a vein, or a certain part of the body. Maybe the person has a sore, a microbe, a disease in a part of the body and the injection is given at a distant site in the body. However, the result is that it heals the sick part and achieves the health of that damaged part. The intention is to heal the diseased part. The effect affects the whole body. Thus, in an analogous way, it happens in the Body of Christ (Jaime Bonet, Familiares de Dios, Spiritual Exercises given to Married Couples in August 1999, 544).

This insight is verified by the teachings of Pope Francis. Our prayer and good works will bear fruit!

We can know quite well that our lives will be fruitful, without claiming to know how,or where, or when. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force. Sometimes it seems that our work is fruit­less, but mission is not like a business transaction or investment, or even a humanitarian activity. It is not a show where we count how many people come as a result of our publicity; it is something much deeper, which escapes all measurement. It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit. The Holy Spirit works as he wills, when he wills and where he wills; we entrust ourselves without pretending to see striking results. We know only that our commitment is necessary.
(Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 279)

So let us not get tired of doing good. We will reap a big harvest if we persevere and do not give up! This was the encouragement of St Paul to the Galatians, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of faith” (6:9-10).

The power of the Resurrection

Prayer also strengthens our faith to recognize the Risen Lord in the situations of our daily life. In praying for the wounded realities, we tap into the immense power of the Resurrection. It is not a thing of the past as Pope Francis reminds us.

Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly.

However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed. Such is the power of the resurrection, and all who evangelize are instruments of that power.
(Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, no. 276)

This immense power of the Resurrection can be seen in so many and through so many signs in our work in healthcare: wounds heal, people get better, that very wounded person eventually leaves hospital, and we ourselves get renewed strength for our work.

May you bring that power of the Resurrection, the power of the Risen Christ to your work and your workplace! God bless us in our lovely vocation mission as healthcare providers!

Fr James McTavish is a Scottish missionary priest of the Verbum Dei community.
He is a member of the General council, is active in teaching moral theology and bioethics, as well as giving formations and retreats.
He can be contacted at

Verbum Dei is an Institute of Consecrated life in the Catholic church.
It was founded in 1963 by Fr Jaime Bonet, and received Pontifical approval in the year 2000.
The community has three branches ­ missionary men (priests and brothers), missionary women and missionary married couples, all working together in a full-time dedication to the Word of God.
The UK Verbum website can be found at