I am a Catholic doctor who promotes health of body, mind, and spirit and strongly supports Pope Francis and his teachings. During this season of division in our society and our Church over health-related issues, I want to celebrate some of Pope Francis’s teachings that relate to health. I believe following his words will make us healthier.
As our shepherd, Pope Francis is deeply concerned about our well-being, especially the state of our souls. Because health of body, health of mind, and health of soul are interconnected, his teachings impact our overall health, not just our spiritual health. Since 2013 when he became Pope, we all have been buffeted by the divisions, anger, rhetoric, and judgmentalism that seem to be growing in our country, world, and Church. We observe how these things, along with the pandemic, violence, war, famine, and climate change, are taking a toll on the health of individuals and the world.
Pope Francis spoke about health of body, mind, and spirit at the Fifth International Vatican Conference “Exploring the Mind, Body & Soul – How Innovation and Novel Delivery Systems Improve Human Health,” in May 2021. He referred to the tripartite model of spirit, soul, and body of St. Paul in 1 Thes 5:23 (“May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”), and commented that mind, body, and soul, “nowadays all too often disjoined, are in fact profoundly and inseparably interrelated.”
This deep connection of body, mind, and spirit is very evident to any family doctor who knows that 70% of patients’ physical problems are either caused by or aggravated by stress. Examples include headache, backache, heartburn, insomnia, high blood pressure, and diabetes. You probably have experienced this mind, body, spirit connection if you’ve held a strong disagreement with someone—about politics, Covid, Church practices, or Pope Francis—and felt a storm of negativity gripping your body and mind. I’ve had this experience and it doesn’t feel good. It is stressful, unhealthy, and ungodly.
Pope Francis continues: “Thanks to interdisciplinary studies, we can come to appreciate better the dynamics involved in the relationship between our physical condition and the state of our habitat, between health and nourishment, our psycho-physical wellbeing and the care of the spiritual life – also through the practice of prayer and meditation – and finally between health and sensitivity to art, and especially music. It is no accident that medicine serves as a bridge between the natural and the human sciences, so much so that in the past it could be defined as philosophia corporis, as we see in a manuscript kept in the Vatican Apostolic Library.”
I love that the Pope speaks of relationships between our physical condition, habitat, nourishment, care of spiritual life, and specific practices like prayer, meditation, music, and the arts in general. The specific practices and habits we choose will help us reduce stress, feel better, be less judgmental, listen more attentively, and, most importantly, walk closer with Our Lord. Consider prayer—I know that I feel much better after I say my morning prayers, including The Prayer of St. Francis. Thanks be to God for always being there for us when we are stressed and hurting, even if our life circumstances may be dire. I think Pope Francis would agree with me that a deep trust in God is the best stress-buster—and less stress translates to improved peace of mind and sense of well-being. None of this would be possible if the body, mind, and spirit were not interconnected as one.
Jorge Bergoglio’s choice of St. Francis of Assisi’s name when he became pope highlights his priorities. Like St. Francis, Pope Francis has consistently preached about our responsibility as Christians to care for those who are poor, hungry, marginalized, homeless, abused, mentally ill, displaced, living in war zones, and now also those suffering the effects of climate change.
Dr. Donald Berwick, a highly respected physician, writes about these same issues from his point of view as a doctor in his paper, “The Moral Determinants of Health.” In it, he asserts that factors like poverty, injustice, homelessness, lack of education, and lack of access to health care create ill health that cannot be healed by a doctor or even by society without strong moral convictions and social solidarity leading people to act. While Dr. Berwick specifically calls on individual physicians to do something about these issues, our pope calls on each one of us to answer the call of Jesus by loving and caring for others, especially those in most need.
In his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis movingly speaks of our absolute call, as individuals and societies, to love and care for all our brothers and sisters, particularly those who are suffering and lacking hope. He appeals for peace, justice, and fraternity, “In the name of the poor, the destitute, the marginalized and those most in need, whom God has commanded us to help as a duty required of all persons, especially the wealthy and those of means” (285).
When we respond to this appeal for peace, justice, and fraternity, three things happen: we serve our God; we bring hope and healing to others by helping them; and we feel better ourselves by living a life with more purpose and meaning.
In the same encyclical, Pope Francis extends an invitation to all of us “to renewed hope, for hope speaks to us of something deeply rooted in every human heart, independently of our circumstances and historical conditioning. Hope speaks to us of a thirst, an aspiration, a longing for a life of fulfillment, a desire to achieve great things, things that fill our heart and lift our spirit to lofty realities like truth, goodness and beauty, justice and love” (55).
Hope is key to health. When I worked in a Washington, DC, facility for the homeless, I repeatedly witnessed the responses of the residents to the love and respect they received from caregivers. As their hope flickered back to life, they began to heal.
I am very grateful to Pope Francis for his teachings. Let us pray that we see Jesus in others, that we care for them instead of judging them. May we pray constantly for renewed hope in Our Lord and in each other.
Dr. Donna Chacko is the author of a new book, Pilgrimage: A Doctor’s Healing Journey. She practiced radiation oncology and later family medicine. She and her first husband raised three daughters in Florida. After his death she moved to Washington, DC, where she cared for the poor until 2013. Now retired, Donna lives in Maryland with her second husband and works in the ministry she founded, Serenity and Health. You can learn more about her book and programs and sign up for her blog at https://www.serenityandhealth.com/.
With thanks to Where Peter Is and Donna Chacko MD, where this article originally appeared.