Catholic tradition inspires health care leaders in service to the poor

July 1, 2014

2014-2015 chairperson
CHA Board of Trustees
President and chief mission officer
PeaceHealth, Vancouver, Wash.

Fourteen years ago, I was fortunate to go with a group of Catholic health care leaders to Assisi, Italy. Sr. Laura Wolf, OSF, whose congregation grew out of the Franciscan tradition, blessed us with a thorough description of the life of St. Francis, his conversion under the Cross of San Damiano and his time spent in the company of those who were sick. In the 13th century, illness often meant being cast out from society.

Shortly after Sr. Wolf spoke, we entered the Basilica of Saint Clare. It was inspiing and humbling to sit quietly in the simple chapel under the same cross where St. Francis had the vision that changed his life, where he was called to devote his life to the needs of others, especially the poor, the sick and the outcast. I thought about the enormous challenge he had undertaken to "rebuild God's church," rejecting his family's wealth to be with the downtrodden. With little support except for his strong belief in service and faith in Christ, he set out to simply follow his calling and in doing so changed the world.

The work of St. Francis can feel very far away from our work. Our days are packed with emails, meetings, spreadsheets and many difficult decisions as we interpret the meaning of mission in the context of 21st century health care. In moments of uncertainty, a return to the life of St. Francis brings clarity. In the midst of debate, change and challenge surrounding health care today, fundamentally we are here to serve, to heal, to accompany and to carry on the healing mission of Jesus among those who are forgotten.

We have much to celebrate this year. The principles which CHA adopted more than five years ago, including service to vulnerable populations, are now beginning to see the light of day as the Affordable Care Act is fully implemented. Over the past year, hundreds of workers in Catholic health care helped individuals enroll in the insurance programs created by the ACA. For those states with a strong commitment to Medicaid expansion, enrollment has been especially brisk. The woman who cuts my hair told me recently that this is the first time in her adult life she was able to get health insurance. That is a joy to celebrate.

Yet, this is the beginning, not the end. There is much more to be done as the safety net continues to be stretched. More insurance is not necessarily more access. In some communities access to primary care providers is limited. In others, groups have limited the number of Medicaid patients in order to preserve the viability of their practices. A few safety net hospitals are closing their doors after decades, sometimes a century or more, of service. We must be advocates for addressing and fixing these shortcomings.

I draw strength from knowing we are not alone in this journey as we seek to define what our rich tradition asks of us in this complex health care environment. Whether it's defining population health, reaching the chronically ill in their homes or finding ways to improve the health of the communities we serve, we are reaching out to partners, both traditional and new. We must find better ways to reach those in our communities who are often overlooked — especially the mentally ill, the homeless and the children who live in poverty.

As we seek answers, it's appropriate that we return to the work of St. Francis. After centuries we now have a Holy Father who has taken the name of that 13th century saint and who is visible in his care and concern for the poor. In Pope Francis' pastoral letter, "Evangelii Gaudium" (The Joy of the Gospel), he declares: "I want a church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei (sense of the faith), but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them." Both the saint and the pope bear witness to being in communion with those who have the least.

A few weeks ago as part of a trip to Rome, a small group of Catholic health care leaders visited with leaders from the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life. We had a warm and substantive exchange of ideas, culminating in a discussion of what it means to lead in the Catholic Church and Catholic health care today. The Holy Father has given clear advice to those within the Vatican:

  • Be professional in your roles
  • Be effective in accomplishing the work of the church
  • Be of service, especially to those in need 

Like St. Francis himself, these goals are powerful in their simplicity. They provide important guidance for all of us in Catholic ministry today. I hope we take these principles to heart as we lead into an uncertain, yet hope-filled future.


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.