Together again at last: Catholic health ministry celebrates at Assembly

by Lisa Eisenhauer
Jul 5, 2022


INDIANAPOLIS — As the Catholic health ministry convened here for its first in-person Assembly in three years, reunions of friends and peers sparked joy and a sense of succor. Speakers and attendees took heart in the power of collective goodwill even as they mourned the devastating toll of the ongoing pandemic and lamented other crises buffeting the nation and the world.

A 45-member orchestra plays during the closing session of the 2022 Catholic Health Assembly in Indianapolis. Live music was a highlight of the celebration for leaders of the Catholic health ministry who were reunited in person after two years of virtual gatherings because of the pandemic.
Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

"When we were last together in Dallas, I don't think any of us could have imagined how the world would change over the course of three years," Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer, said in her opening remarks, referencing the last in-person Catholic Health Assembly in June 2019.

Throughout the Assembly, Sr. Mary and other speakers mourned the more than 1 million lives lost just in the United States to COVID-19. They also shared sorrow over the loss of life, burnout and high turnover the crisis has caused in the health care workforce.

Laura Kaiser, the new chair of CHA's Board of Trustees, noted during her installation remarks that over the past two years health care providers have been "challenged, humbled and heartsick. But never defeated."

Kaiser, president and chief executive of SSM Health, added: "Now is the time for renewal."

Joyful reunion
"Renew, Reimagine, Rejoice" was the theme of the three-day gathering June 5-7 that drew about 500 people from the Catholic health ministry to Indianapolis and dozens more for virtual access to programming.

CHA President and Chief Executive Officer Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, speaks at the 2022 Catholic Health Assembly, which drew about 500 people.
Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

In addition to educational sessions and networking opportunities, the event featured live music that celebrated the reunion. The band Protocol performed Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready," Barry Manilow's "One Voice" and other songs in the main ballroom at the JW Marriott Indianapolis. A maestro conducted 45 symphony musicians in a session that drew an analogy between the personal attributes a conductor harnesses to elicit a masterfully synchronized performance from professional musicians and the attributes that allow senior managers to unleash creative productivity in their workforce.

Dr. Rod Hochman, president and chief executive of Providence St. Joseph Health, was among those grateful to be reunited with ministry leaders from across the country. "There is nothing better than being back together," he said. "I don't think we'll ever take it for granted again."

Damond W. Boatwright, president and chief executive of Hospital Sisters Health System, said, "It's a blessing because we have the gift of connection and that was missing. I think this ability to be able to renew old relationships and connect on a personal level and see one another and hug one another and even hold hands is very meaningful."

Financial challenges
Speakers at the event noted that the deaths, illness and isolation brought on by the pandemic haven't been the only sources of stress for the health care sector over the past two years. They pointed out that providers across the health care continuum have been rattled, like the rest of the nation, by external forces including violence and political division, and operational challenges exacerbated by staff shortages, dramatic spikes in the costs of labor and products, and supply chain disruptions. Catholic long-term care facilities have been particularly impacted and many are at risk of closing.

In her valedictory remarks as the outgoing chair of the CHA Board of Trustees, Dr. Rhonda Medows said health systems "face the threat of financial disability and not being able to sustain themselves."

Medows, president of population health management for Providence St. Joseph Health, said of the Catholic health care ministry: "We are a critical piece of the health care infrastructure, and we are an absolute necessity for the health care safety net."

She suggested that to survive health systems might have to rethink their business practices, including how and where services are provided and how to ensure they are fairly reimbursed.

Addressing gun violence, hate
Assembly speakers also bemoaned the horrific impact that gun violence is having on the nation. Sr. Mary referenced the mass shootings at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May and the one on the campus of CHA member Saint Francis Health System in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 1 that left two doctors, a staff member and a patient dead. The gunman committed suicide.

"These are tragic reminders of the deep-seated evil that we're experiencing today," she said. "It's become an all-too-familiar story. Our society's in desperate need of healing."

Sr. Mary emphasized that CHA and many of its members are advocating for sensible gun policies. On the opening day of the meeting, she read a letter from President Joe Biden in which he mentioned the "wanton gun violence" and thanked the ministry "for recommitting to building a safer nation for generations to come."

Assembly speakers decried the incidence of hate crimes as well as the racial tension across the nation and the race-related disparities that persist in health care. Sr. Mary noted, however, that almost 90% of CHA's members have signed on to the organization's We Are Called pledge to combat racism by achieving health equity.

"Through We Are Called we are not only lending our collective voice to the cause of racial justice, we are also taking action to bring about real change," Sr. Mary noted.

'To heal our world'
Another focus of the Assembly was environmental injustice. Speakers cited the call for "integral ecology" — the holistic and integrated approach to political, social, economic and environmental problems — issued by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Sí … On Care for Our Common Home.

CHA and several of its members have embraced the action platform the Vatican has created to put the teachings of Laudato Sí in place. The platform aims to engage people and organizations in seeking societal change and to gain the critical mass to make an impact on a global scale. Several members also have pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions and zero waste.

Kaiser told the Assembly that as the 2022-2023 chair of the CHA board, "I want to bring additional energy to the need to look after our shared home — to focus on renewing the Earth as a key component of equitable health. Given the role we have in our communities, Catholic health care can lead needed changes to reduce environmental impact."

In remarks that brought the 2022 Assembly to a close, Sr. Mary urged everyone in the ministry to listen deeply to each other and to those served. "I am confident that we will slowly begin to understand how we are being called to tikkun olam — to heal our world," she said, using the Hebrew phrase for a Jewish concept that also is core to Catholicism: concern for the marginalized and vulnerable. "And as we do, let us draw upon the strength of God who accompanies and guides our every step, and let us never waver in our commitment to ensure a just and compassionate health care system for all."

Julie Minda contributed to this report.


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