A Communion of Saints

Halloween 2015 provided the perfect scenario for partying. October 31st fell on a weekend. October 31st was a Saturday, the night of daylight savings, providing for another hour of enjoyment or sleep. Wisconsin weather decided to be particularly mild. By all means, college me would have reveled and planned for Halloween 2015 for weeks and might have even created a semblance of a creative costume.

Actual me acted particularly adult. Instead of going to bars with my friends, I attended a Catholic bioethics conference alone as part of a year-long certification program in Philadelphia. (Information available here).

I expected to feel alone when I could have been surrounded by friends. I expected to feel lost when I could have been at home. I expected to feel forgotten when I could have been included.

But our Good Lord is so good. I have never had a better Halloween in my life, and it was nothing like I expected. Instead being with friends, I was consoled by being surrounded by a communion of saints.

Signing up for this bioethics certificate, I was nervous. I really thought it would be me and 10 people, all older than me by at least 30 years and more experienced than me by at least 20 years. Discussion board conversations did not comfort me at all. People would talk about all their experience as neurologists, on ethics boards, etc. Little old me would contribute with my, “I’ve been a nurse for 3 1/2 years…”

Showing up to Day 1 of conference, I was blown away. I came 10 minutes before lecture started, and almost every seat was taken. I had to sit front row with at least eight rows behind me, full of people. There were priests, religious sisters, doctors, fellow nurses (woot woot!), lawyers, pharmacists, other lay people with a particular interest in ethics. I met two people alone from my home state of Wisconsin (woot woot!), and one in the same area. I met a variety of people within my age bracket.

This ethics conference was so encouraging, I cannot even explain it fully. But I’ll try.

Nursing, medicine, anything health care related is very challenging right now. It not just the job of caring for others in their most vulnerable times that is difficult. That alone is hard, but the hardest part is the increasing pressure to violate your conscience.

I think all of us, regardless of our beliefs, go into health care wanting to help people. But then reality sets in. People don’t want help. People don’t care about themselves and their health. Cases hit you way too close to home for comfort. People tell you that their lives are ruined, and you know you were a part of that. All of a sudden, you wonder if you’re helping anyone, so you cling to the belief that you “do no harm.”

But then reality sets in. You have to harm people in order to heal them. You have to deliver horrible, life-altering news. You apologize all the time for the pain you cause in various procedures and conversations. “I’m sorry” isn’t even a well-thought statement anymore: it becomes perfunctory to your day and your job. All of a sudden, you wonder if you’re really doing no harm.

So what’s wrong if I give someone a pill to assist with their suicide? What’s wrong if someone wants a pill to alter their natural fertility? What’s wrong if someone wants a pill to induce a miscarriage? What’s wrong about all that? The patient wants it, right? And we’re all about autonomy and letting a patient decide their care, right?

Though our culture thinks autonomy and independence is the most important value, autonomy has its limits. Too much autonomy hurts people. If everyone could do anything they wanted, we’d all hurt each other. We’d steal from one another, we’d kill one another, we’d definitely hurt one another. In exercising our own autonomy too much, we naturally violate the autonomy of another.

That’s why every day I work I tell someone no. No, you cannot have more pain medication because your pain receptors will be overwhelmed, you will struggle to breathe, and I am not going be the reason you stop breathing. No, you cannot have more salt because you’re in kidney failure, and your body cannot process the electrolyte properly. No, you cannot stay in bed all day because you will get pressure ulcers, lose muscle mass, and further deteriorate.

Every day I work I purposely violate my patients’ autonomy for their greater good. 

Hippocrates recognized that basic logic when he crafted the Hippocratic Oath, the oldest ethical standards of medicine. The original text reads,

I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius, and Hygieia and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses as my witnesses, that, according to my ability and judgement, I will keep this Oath and this contract:

To hold him who taught me this art equally dear to me as my parents, to be a partner in life with him, and to fulfill his needs when required; to look upon his offspring as equals to my own siblings, and to teach them this art, if they shall wish to learn it, without fee or contract; and that by the set rules, lectures, and every other mode of instruction, I will impart a knowledge of the art to my own sons, and those of my teachers, and to students bound by this contract and having sworn this Oath to the law of medicine, but to no others.

I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

In purity and according to divine law will I carry out my life and my art.

I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.

Into whatever homes I go, I will enter them for the benefit of the sick, avoiding any voluntary act of impropriety or corruption, including the seduction of women or men, whether they are free men or slaves.

Whatever I see or hear in the lives of my patients, whether in connection with my professional practice or not, which ought not to be spoken of outside, I will keep secret, as considering all such things to be private.

So long as I maintain this Oath faithfully and without corruption, may it be granted to me to partake of life fully and the practice of my art, gaining the respect of all men for all time. However, should I transgress this Oath and violate it, may the opposite be my fate.

– Hippocratic Oath, available here

But modern medicine has forgotten its roots. Denying someone an abortion or pills to assist with their suicide used to be standard. The oath reads, “I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.” Now us health care providers are pressured into giving them, feeling as if denying them to our patients is poor practice with risks of being sued.

But is giving someone pills to induce a miscarriage or assist with their suicide good practice? No, it is a false mercy. As St. Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), “true compassion leads to sharing another’s pain; it does not kill the person whose suffering we cannot bear” (EV, 66).

It is easier to have one less mouth to feed than to support a child physically, emotionally, mentally. It is easier to give someone a prescription for pills than to listen to their woes, support their newfound dependence, and ease their physical, emotional, mental pain. It is easier to trample upon the inherent rights of the weak than to defend their innate dignity.

But it is so hard, so discouraging, so lonely, to fight this battle every day at work with seemingly no one at your side. Conversely, it was so wonderful, so encouraging, so peaceful to encounter a small piece of the community fighting this battle.

I met a pharmacist who quit her well-paying job because she would be forced by law to dispense abortifacient medications. I met a family practice physician who despite pressures from her colleagues and employer refuses to prescribe birth control. I met so many older practitioners just thrilled that people my age were interested in defending the inherent dignity of human life. I was surrounded by a living communion of saints.

When the conference ended, when we slowly each departed for our end of the country, I had a little extra time to explore an exhibit at the Franklin Institute called “Vatican Splendors.” Organized by Congregazione per l’Evangelizzazione dei popoli of the Vatican City State for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, the exhibit displayed precious artifacts from the Vatican. Some had never previously left Vatican City.

I saw a rock from St. Peter’s tomb, admired a 4th century sarcophagus, saw an old marble relief from the altar at St. Peter’s basilica, and even put my hand in a cast of St. Pope John Paul II’s hand. Each piece, each painting, each relic reminded me of saints passed and that I am continually surrounded by a communion of saints, praying unceasingly for us struggling on earth.

It was a fitting end to the conference, a lovely way to spend the evening, a small way of celebrating All Hallow’s Eve.

We are each surrounded by a communion of saints, living and deceased, in our daily lives. We are never fighting the battle alone, however much it may feel like it. All around us are holy men and women who are fighting our same battles. Throughout the heavens are holy men and women who fought our same battles and by the grace of God rose victorious. And by the power of God Himself, Christ has already won the battle. Christ died and rose for our sins.

As St. Paul wrote to his brethren, the faithful Romans,

What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?
Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who acquits us.
Who will condemn? It is Christ [Jesus] who died, rather, was raised, who also is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.
What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?
As it is written:
“For your sake we are being slain all the day;
we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:31-39

And as St. Paul wrote in closing to give a renewed sense of hope to the holy Hebrews,

Thus we may say with confidence:

“The Lord is my helper,
[and] I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?”

Hebrews 13:6

We are never alone, even when every feeling, every sign, every bit of objective data tells us otherwise. We are continually surrounded by a communion of saints.

So, brothers and sisters, let us here on earth support another. As a family practice physician stood up, telling each one of us her difficulties, her fears, her struggles, her battle, “We need you. We need you to hold us accountable to this high standard. We need your support. But most of all, we need your prayers.”

Let us most of all pray for one another in the steadfast hope of redemption in Our Lord Jesus Christ. When praying for your friends and loved one, please remember to keep us health care providers in your prayers. Health care is a battlefield. I confess, many days it feels like a losing battle. Many laws are threatening our very conscience, and we face much uncertainty and scorn.

Please pray for us health care providers, that our fears may be dispelled by the light of Truth.

Please pray for us health care providers, that we may resist the temptations of the culture of death.

Please pray for us health care providers, that we may treat each patient with the dignity and respect that is own to each one of them by their very nature of being a daughter or son of Our Lord.

Please pray for us health care providers, that we may be a sign of true healing, a mere taste of the healing love of the Divine Physician.

Please pray for us health care providers, that we ourselves can know the peace of Christ, that we who care so much for others can know His providential care for us.


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