Week 6 of Lent: Reflection No. 7 – The Sacramentality of Catholic health care
This final reflection for Lent will focus on the communion and sacramentality of the health care ministry of the Church, which is the community of the body of Christ on earth. Within the body, the ordained priesthood ministers the person of Jesus as he continues to be present to us in, and through the sacraments, of which the eucharist and the anointing of the sick are pertinent with regard to the Church’s health care ministry.
It is important at this point of our reflection to remember that the pastoral care of the sick is not just the responsibility of the priest who presides over the celebration of the sacraments.
As noted in our first reflection on Ash Wednesday, all Catholics are involved in caring for the sick and the dying in one way or other.
It is timely then to remember that the pastoral care of the sick is in fact the common responsibility of all Christians – for example, we read in the introduction to the Pastoral Care of the Sick: Rites of Anointing and viaticum (#43): “The concern that Christ showed for the bodily and spiritual welfare of those who are ill is continued by the Church in its ministry to the sick. This ministry is the common responsibility of all Christians, who should visit the sick, remember them in prayer, and celebrate the sacraments with them. The family and friends of the sick, doctors, and others who care for them, and priests with pastoral responsibilities have a particular share in this ministry of comfort.”
Seen in this way, the care of the sick and the dying is a joint responsibility and calling of all Christians – whether lay or ordained, professional or volunteer, family member or non-family carers. St. Paul describes this unity of mission of all Christians in these terms (1 Cor 12: 4-5): “…there are varieties of gifts, but the same spirit, and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord… to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
St. Paul continues by describing the communion that exists between the priest celebrant of the sacraments, and the lay faithful who participate in the sacraments, and are then sent out on mission in the health care ministry of the Church. Paul uses the image of the unity of the human body, with its many parts, of which each part makes a vital and unique contribution to the unity of the body (1 Cor. 12;12-26). In this sense, when we reflect on who we are as the body of Christ, we become the heart, hands and feet of Christ for the sick and the dying in our midst.
In a special way, for Catholic health care professionals, receiving the real presence of Jesus in holy communion transforms our professional role into a ministry of the real presence of Jesus for our patients.
Seen in this way, there is a profound unity (understood in terms of communion) between our professional practice in patient care and our faith in Jesus. This unity is based on our call to follow Jesus in his way of humility, to be sent out by Jesus on our mission of ministering Gospel Compassion for our patients, to be nourished at the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass, and to co-operate with the graces that flow from the anointing of the sick that is presided over by our priests.
The Catholic Medical Association was formed as a national body for Catholic doctors and other health care professionals. The Association seeks to offer fellowship, support and ongoing education for Catholic health care professionals in matters related to their faith and professional practice. At its launch in 2018, there was an anointing of hands for participants at the inauguration Mass. While not a sacrament, the anointing of hands was a beautiful sacramental of our calling to be healing hands for our patients. The Association can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.
Please pray that the Lord will continue to lead, guide and form all Catholic health care professionals in their ministry of Gospel compassion for the sick and the dying.
Dr Michael Tan is a retired GP in formation for the Permanent Diaconate in the Diocese of Parramatta. He has just been appointed to the Executive of the Catholic Medical Association in NSW