Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 65(1) February 2015
The New Evangelization:
The Role of the Healthcare Student
Text of talk given by Cardinal Vincent Nichols at the CMA Conference for Healthcare Students at Westminster Cathedral Hall on 8 November 2014.
“The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (EG1).
With these opening words of Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis encourages all the Christian faithful to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by joy. Pope Francis himself encourages you, as healthcare students, to participate fully in this new evangelization.
Thank you very much indeed for giving up an extremely precious Saturday to participate in this important conference. Congratulations to those whose excellent initiative it is and have made it happen – mostly students, I understand.
It’s a great pleasure to speak to you and, with the Holy Father, encourage you to share generously the joy of the Gospel, to enable others to encounter Jesus, so that their hearts and lives may be filled with the greatest joy. Together, then, let’s reflect on your role as healthcare students in this new evangelisation. How you can be effective evangelists, or, to use a term favoured by Pope Francis, “missionary disciples”?
Much of what I’ll say applies to every follower of the Lord; but I hope I also manage to help you discover ways in which to be missionary disciples as healthcare students, even if frequently I direct your focus to the day, God willing, when you’re fully qualified.
First of all: be joyful! Don’t be like those “Christians whose lives” the Pope observes, “seem like Lent without Easter” (EG 6); those who always look like they’re on their way back from a funeral. As the Pope reminds us: “The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice”. He asks: “Why should we not also enter into this great stream of joy?” (EG 5). Yes, plunge into joy! Don’t just timidly poke a little toe in at the surface.
I cannot overemphasise that the source of the joy we simply have to share generously with others is Jesus. Jesus is our joy. We can’t lead others to him unless we ourselves enjoy a living, loving and trusting relationship with Jesus. The first proclamation we make as missionary disciples, a proclamation which must ring out over and over, the centre for all our evangelising efforts, is: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and is now at your side to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (EG 164). Our proclamation of this won’t be authentic unless first we permit Jesus to love us with that infinite love he so longs to lavish upon us.
This primary proclamation is first, explains Pope Francis, not in the sense that it’s just at the beginning of evangelisation, rather “because it is the principal proclamation which we must hear again and again, in different ways”. It’s also “the one which we must announce one way or another…at every moment” (EG 165). This will happen only if we let our hearts and lives be filled with the joy that comes from encountering Jesus. Fruitful evangelists recognise their own need to be continually evangelized, to encounter Jesus afresh. We must ever remain in the company of Jesus, even as he sends us forth as missionary disciple’s to attract others to him.
All very well. But where do we encounter Jesus?
Jesus comes to meet us in prayer. In prayer we welcome him as leader and guide. Prayer takes many forms. Find a way of prayer, a time and place, suited to your circumstances. (I knew of one student, a mother of ten, who locked herself in the loo to pray!) As healthcare students, you can certainly be contemplatives, your gaze fixed adoringly on the face of Jesus; yet that doesn’t mean your contemplation follows the pattern of a Carthusian monk or Carmelite nun. Just one suggestion: when you wake up, sign yourself with the Cross, or make a morning offering to the Lord of all you’ll do that day so that in everything you’ll truly seek his face.
There is, though, a form of prayer in which we must all participate. The greatest prayer: the Mass. Here we’re before the presence of Jesus in Word and Sacrament. Listen attentively to the Scriptural readings. Hear the Lord speak to you. Love Sacred Scripture. Study it prayerfully outside of Mass, particularly the Gospels. When you receive the body and blood of Christ know you are intimately united to him, taken up into the beautiful communion who is Love: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Nourishment is given for your mission to draw others into this divine community. “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord”, we’re commanded at the end of Mass.
All of this is through the working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus stays with us as we venture forth as missionary disciples in the power of that same Spirit. Pope Francis implores us to be Spirit-filled evangelizers, fearlessly open to the Holy Spirit who burns in our hearts, so that in union with Jesus we seek and love what he loves – the glory of the Father (see EG Chp 5)! So, invoke the Holy Spirit constantly. He helps us in our weakness. He is the soul of our missionary longing that everyone will cry out with Jesus, with us, Abba Father.
If you can, please try to attend Mass daily– especially if celebrated at your place of study or practice. You don’t need to advertise loudly you’re off to Mass; but others will notice you are - and it will have an evangelising effect, believe me.
It’s excellent that you began today’s programme praying before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. It’s so powerful. Pope Francis, like his predecessors, enthusiastically commends adoration of the Eucharist. Adoration both orientates us toward Jesus and impels us to offer our lives in missionary service of others. During adoration, as at Mass, and all times of prayer, never pray just for your own needs. Intercede for others too.
Evangelii Gaudium highlights the missionary power of intercessory prayer. The Holy Father writes: “Intercession is like a ‘leaven’ in the heart of the Trinity…What our intercession achieves is that [God’s] power and his faithfulness are shown ever more clearly in the midst of the people” (EG 283). Pray for those for whom you care, pray for and with one another, pray for everyone engaged in healthcare.
Our intercessory prayer is caught up in the powerful intercession of the Saints. Their intercession and example helps you fulfil your role in the new evangelisation. Many saints were healthcare practitioners (though I expect few would have recognised that title). The principle patron of the CMA, St Luke was, by tradition, a physician. Its co-patrons, the third century martyrs, Cosmas and Damian, were renowned for their medical skills. St Hildegard of Bingen, medieval abbess, theologian and composer, also wrote on the curative qualities of herbs. I could add many more.
iv. Rosary and Devotions
Along with praying to the Saints, I recommend other popular devotions, like the Rosary – a sure grip on the Gospel in testing times. Pope Francis is extremely keen on the evangelising power of popular piety. He describes it as “bringing with it the grace of being a missionary, of coming out of oneself and setting out on pilgrimage” (EG 124).
Talking of pilgrimages: go to Lourdes. There Mary gathers you to her Son. You’ll come away renewed in a joy you’re eager to share. Go with a group that includes sick pilgrims. Westminster’s and other diocese’s pilgrimages need you. At Lourdes clear witness is given to the Good News for sick and disabled people. Their dignity and worth shines brightly. The deeper meaning of healing is proclaimed. A point to which I’ll return, but to mention now a healing we all need –the healing of the wounds of sin. In the sacrament of Penance we encounter Jesus, accept his offer of salvation, experience the joy of being set free from sin, and go forth strengthened in our desire to spread that joy.
Having acknowledged the need to be constantly evangelised in order to evangelise, let’s look at how you can announce Gospel joy?
Return to the centrality of the principal proclamation highlighted earlier: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and is now at your side to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (EG 164). This is the proclamation which we must announce one way or another…at every moment” (EG 165).
This doesn’t mean repeating non-stop in words spoken aloud, “Jesus Christ loves you”. People might just get a little fed up. Nonetheless, the truth that Jesus Christ loves you is the most fundamental truth you always carry in your hearts and proclaim by your lives, even if the sound “Jesus” isn’t always made by your lips.
As evangelists in the world of healthcare you confront incredibly complex ethical questions. You need to give strong and courageous witness to the inviolable and intrinsic worth of every human life from conception to natural end. However, enabling the splendour of Truth to shine, letting the Gospel of Life be heard and heeded, is not always easy. You will, and already do, face, determined and sometimes oppressive opposition; perhaps from lecturers or fellow students. Never let this deter you from engaging in debates about euthanasia, abortion, fertility, the just provision of care for all irrespective of financial means, age, or illness.
As I said, in doing so you needn’t always speak about Jesus explicitly. Not least because many such questions can be answered without recourse to Christian faith. What is right and just in the natural order, what truly enables us to flourish, can be discovered by anyone of good will using human reason. So take a keen interest medical ethics. The CMA is there to help and inform. Likewise the Anscombe Centre.
Although recourse to Christian faith isn’t always required, the light of faith in Christ does help us to see the true and the good, and let’s not forget the beauty, of our humanity, more clearly. We shouldn’t hinder ourselves, then, by ignoring what we’ve discovered, or understood more fully, about who we are through our relationship with Jesus - even if, in theory, some aspects are discoverable by our intellects unaided by faith. Always let the ‘primary proclamation’ govern your approach, whether you mention Jesus explicitly or not. For within that statement “Jesus Christ loves us”, everything else makes the most complete sense. All the Church teaches about respect for human life ultimately flows from this most fundamental truth. So when we talk about these issues, to repeat, even if we never mention his name, our guiding conviction remains Jesus’ infinite love for every human person. He wills only the greatest good for everyone. This is the heart of all we hold and bravely proclaim. It’s the conviction fashioning the courteous manner in which we engage with those who disagree with us. Yes, be unflinching in fidelity; lay bare erroneous logic; yet always with great charity and compassion.
Continuing the theme faith and reason: your proclamation of joy is exercised within the dialogue between these two. It’s a dialogue in which faith not only unmasks misuse of reason, but more importantly defends and cherishes reason. As Pope Francis reminds us, “faith elevates us to the mystery transcending nature and human intelligence [but is] not fearful of reason; on the contrary it seeks and trusts reason”, since the light of both comes from God (EG 242). Indeed, he continues, “The Church has no wish to hold back the marvellous progress of science… [including that of the medial sciences]…she rejoices and even delights in acknowledging the enormous potential that God has given to the human mind” (EG 243). Thus, “Evangelisation is happily attentive to scientific advances and wishes to shed the light of faith upon them.” It seeks not to dismiss the importance of scientific progress, rather to ensure it fulfils its divine purpose by remaining “respectful of the centrality and supreme value of the human person at every stage of life” (EG 242).
You are ambassadors of a Gospel that says not either faith or reason, but both. On occasion you will have to reject unambiguously the abuse of knowledge gained from the empirical sciences. But also be marvellous heralds of the praise the Church readily gives to the responsible use of that same knowledge. This is a highly significant contribution that you make to the new evangelisation.
As noted before, numerous saints have enabled healthcare to progress. Many religious orders have founded and still run hospitals advancing medical science. The contribution of lay faithful is likewise immense! It’s amazing how Christian faith has been, and remains, the motivating force in the provision of so much healthcare – often when no-one else is willing or able to provide it. No harm trumpeting this in our evangelising endeavours – with humility, of course.
iii. Words and Deeds
Sometimes, frequently maybe, your evangelisation takes the form of words, written or spoken, whether in formal settings, conferences like this, or in professional journals; perhaps in conversation with other students, possibly over a drink. But you also evangelise through your deeds: by the kind of person you are, the way you interact with others – particularly one-to-one. Should attempts be made to prevent you speaking about Jesus, the silent witness you give by your actions and attitude can never be silenced. But again, that primary proclamation must shape everything you do and are so that you make abundantly clear your guiding desire: that everyone experiences life overflowing with joy.
iv. Joy in Sadness
Of course, the joy we possess as evangelists and wish to share is far deeper than a superficial grin or a constant exuberance which, if it does not hugely annoy, certainly exhausts others! Papa Francesco understands this. He knows “that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty”. So now we come to the very heart of what I want to say to you all today. Yours is a profession and a way of life which will bring you, day by day, face to face with so much human sadness and suffering. How are you to be joyful in such times and situations?
Pope Francis says, “Joy adapts and changes, but” he adds “it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved”. He continues, “I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress” (EG6). These are such important words, the most significant quotation I am using today.
If not already, you will encounter people enduring great suffering. You are missionary disciples “even amid the greatest distress”. Here your privileged vocation is to manifest “the Gospel radiant with the glory of the Cross”: the Cross that bestows joy by effecting a healing beyond any purely physical cure. To help us understands this, please have before your eyes the person of Our Blessed Lady. Think of her standing at the foot of the cross, seeing her son dying in agony. Think of her as pierced by a sword through her heart. Yet this is the woman who’s 'soul magnified the Lord' who’s 'spirit rejoiced in God my saviour.' She is proclaimed for us to be the star of evangelisation, star who both sheds light on our tasks and is a shining example, a star, in carrying it out. Francis speaks of Mary as a star of evangelisation because 'she makes a home out of a stable'; because she 'makes sure there is enough wine for the feast' and because she is one who understands our suffering like no other and who always accompanies us. This is the work we are to do.
v. Healing and Curing
This distinction between healing and curing is present in St Luke’s Gospel. Luke shows us Jesus going out to the edges, bringing those pushed to the periphery into the heart of the community of faith. This same movement is seen in Jesus’ healing miracles. Just one example: the healing of the woman suffering from a haemorrhage (Lk 8:42-48).
This woman’s illness her made her poor. Desperate for a cure she’d spent all her money on doctors. But she was impoverished in another way too – relationally. Her condition made her ritually unclean. Whoever came onto contact with her became unclean too. Consequently, she lived beyond the boundaries of those socially alive. Yet she dares to push her way through the crowd to Jesus…and touch him! Immediately she’s cured. Though not yet healed. Jesus could have chastised the woman for touching him. However, by demanding she confess her action before the crowd he draws her back into the community. He proclaims her not an outcast, but woman of faith. Naming her ‘daughter’, he publicly enfolds her within God’s family. This is her healing.
Healing wounded relationships, even resurrecting relationships that have died, is essential to our mission, integral to evangelisation. Pope Francis describes the Church as a field hospital. He begs us to be a church for the poor. In this country material poverty exists, though not like that in other parts of the globe. Perhaps we suffer more from relational poverty – loneliness. Jesus saves, sets free, those bound up in the most radical loneliness…through us! We must not be a crowd keeping others from Jesus. Instead, through us, everyone must be free to touch Jesus.
As Christians in healthcare, be the healing touch of Jesus. Release from captivity the sick who can suffer an acute sense of loneliness, even when surrounded by hospital staff and fellow patients. The way you relate to those in your care is extremely important –it has immense therapeutic value. So love your patients. It’s never just some body before you with whom you tinker as if a crashed computer. Rather always before you is someone, a person, body and soul, made in God’s image. Let this person meet in you, Jesus – whether or not you mention his name. Watch Pope Francis. He’ll teach you! Being this joyful and joy inspiring presence to seriously or terminally ill people enables them to be nonetheless healthy. Isn’t this what hospice care achieves?
When you can’t cure the illness, always believe, and help others to believe, that you always remain, for the person, channels of healing. Others who are not medically trained do the same. You can help that to be recognised. As part of your role in the new evangelisation, please make known to those who don’t appreciate it that for many (dare I say “everyone”?) hospital chaplaincy, the ministry of priests, facilitating access to the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Anointing, are not luxuries but essential to well-being. They are seriously part of the healing process.
vi. Flannery O'Connor
Let me now tell of someone who truly explores the difference between curing an illness and healing a person. She proves that you can be healed and healthy though not cured. She shows how joy may flourish where it appears impossible. She is the 20th Century American writer, Flannery O’Connor. I came to know her writings when laid-up following a hip replacement. Her novels and short stories aren’t always easy reads. The ugly face of death appears incessantly. Yet they communicate powerfully the glorious paradox at the heart of our Christin faith: grace can be at work even in what’s most shocking. And this is the cause of our joy “even amid the greatest distress”.
Flannery had the unshakeable belief that the Incarnation gives ultimate meaning to the whole universe, and especially to our lives. God the Son, took on our human flesh in all its messiness, came into a bloody and brutal world, and died a horrifying death. Christ’s crucifixion was the most shocking event imaginable. But it brought salvation to the whole of humanity. In the greatest agony, infinite love is revealed and given. In the darkness of Golgotha “a flicker of light is born” which fans up into a brilliant flame that can never be extinguished. The death of Christ changes everything. It changes the meaning of death. In Flannery’s own words: “the most creative action of the Christian’s life is to prepare his death in Christ”. Evangelisation seeks to enable people to do exactly this.
As a Catholic author, Flannery sought to unveil the beauty of life with Christ by helping people to see the ugliness of a world without him. This is surely the task of every evangelist, no matter their occupation: to let shine the radiant beauty of life with Christ. This beauty is disclosed not just through Flannery’s written words; rather more so by the life she led and the death she died. At a relatively young age, she was struck by Lupus. This raging wolf ravaged her. Nevertheless, “she picked up her crutches –and her cross, with little fanfare, but plenty of humour and humility. And right to the end, she exulted in God’s creation, finding joy in the strutting, squawking birds and mischievous burros that made their homes at Andalusia” (the name of the farm in Georgia where Flannery lived and died aged 39).
A favourite prayer of Flannery was to the Archangel Raphael, a name meaning “God heals”. The prayer asks that “we may not be strangers in the province of joy”. Evidently her prayer was answered. For although her stories are disturbing, in many parts they’re also extremely humorous. Within the grimmest circumstances of her life, she found the lighter side. As well as believing suffering to be an experience shared with Christ, she held that joy was too. She grasped that joy “may be a redemptive experience itself and not just the fruit of one”. The Christ who shared our brutal world also shared our human joys. For Flannery a simple joy, such as witnessing one of the peacocks she kept at Andalusia opening its tail, can shake us out of sorrow and release us from our worries. She knew that laughter really is the best medicine. When a friend was asked from where sprang the humour that characterised Flannery’s life right to the end, he replied; “Faith in the Christian religion.” The sorrow of the Crucifix cannot be separated from the joy of the Resurrection.
To end: back to the constant need for evangelists to encounter Jesus afresh, to be ceaselessly evangelised by him. Yes, we are to be the presence of Christ for those suffering sickness. However, in them we also encounter and tend Jesus’s wounds: though we may not always realise it! “When did we see you sick?” (See Mt 26:31vv.) But our sick brothers and sisters minster to us too! In them we touch the flesh of Jesus and Jesus touches us, evangelises us, heals, saves, loves us, and fills us with joy. This is certainly my experience. I pray it may also be yours as missionary disciples embarking on a new chapter of evangelisation.
- Mary, Mother of the Living Gospel and Mother of our Joy,
Star of the New Evangelisation and Our Lady of Health, Pray for us.
- St Raphael, Pray for us.
- St Luke, Pray for us
- Ss Cosmas and Damian, Pray for us
A YouTube video recording of this talk is available - click here