Compassion remains cornerstone as ministry prepares for challenges ahead

July 1, 2017

2016-2017 Chairperson
CHA Board of Trustees
President and chief executive of Ascension Healthcare and executive vice president of Ascension, St. Louis

I think it was Walt Disney who said, "Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future." I'm certain that Mr. Disney was not speaking about the field of health care — but his words ring true for each of us these days, don't they?

Indeed, in the last year alone, we in Catholic health care have witnessed momentous change that will have a profound impact on our ministries, the dedicated care providers who work within them and all those we are privileged to serve.

Pope Francis greets Robert Henkel during the pope’s general audience at the Vatican May 3. Henkel, who retired June 30 from Ascension Healthcare, was in Rome attending CHA’s Ecclesiology and Spiritual Renewal Program for Health Care Leaders. Henkel’s wife Roseanne is pictured to his left and Sr. Carol is in the foreground.
Photo © Osservatore Romano

As the administration and Congress have debated the merits of the American Health Care Act, CHA and its members have spoken with one voice, continuing to advocate passionately for a health care system in which accessible and affordable health coverage is available for everyone.

In concert with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, we expressed our support for proposed conscience protection legislation which, as CHA noted, "would permanently codify protections for individual and institutional health care providers' conscience rights and provide remedies for violations of those rights."

Our 2017 Catholic Health Assembly is focused on "Building Bridges by Faith." Over the past year, we have been collaborating to update the CHA's strategic direction in light of an ever-evolving health care environment. And thanks to a change to CHA's bylaws, the board has approved seven representative membership applications from organizations which — due to changes in their own structures — would not have been able to remain CHA members under our previous bylaw provisions. We're blessed with their continued presence in the CHA.

For all of this important bridge-building work, we are indebted to Sr. Carol Keehan, DC, the CHA staff and board, and all of you who have played a part in leading our Catholic health ministry in the United States. I offer my gratitude and best wishes to Dr. Rod Hochman, who becomes CHA board chair this year. I consider Rod a friend, and I know of his deep dedication and commitment to our Catholic health care ministry.

When I addressed last year's Catholic Health Assembly, I touched on a special area of emphasis for Pope Francis — what the Holy Father calls "the culture of encounter." I talked about how journalist and commentator John Allen sees the pope's understanding of "encounter" as a proxy for "mercy." In this way, Mr. Allen sees "encounter" emphasizing the sentiment of compassion. And compassion, of course, is at the very heart of our ministry.

As you might expect, Pope Francis has continued to preach and teach about "the culture of encounter" in 2017. It was entirely unexpected, at least for me, to see Pope Francis revisiting "the culture of encounter" in a TED talk, in April.

TED is a nonprofit organization that posts presentations online for free distribution, under the slogan "ideas worth spreading." The pope's 17-minute TED talk, entitled "Why the only future worth building includes everyone" has been viewed more than 2 million times to date. In his remarks, Pope Francis said the following:

"The future … is made of encounters, because life flows through our relations with others."

I felt like the pope was speaking to each of us in Catholic health care when he said:

"Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need. ... We have so much to do, and we must do it together."

Summing up many of the challenges and opportunities we face, Pope Francis made this interesting comparison: 

"How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion? How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us?"

As a parting gift as I end my service as CHA board chair, Sr. Carol surprised me during our recent ecclesiology program in Rome with an opportunity to meet and speak with Pope Francis following his weekly Wednesday address. That encounter reinforced for me the authenticity of the pope's message — of how important each one of us is in the world today, and how we are called to serve one another with compassion.

There is not much that I can add to this articulation of the church's mission. But perhaps I can conclude by connecting these sentiments to one key element of our mutual work that still requires our focused attention.

As a Catholic health care ministry, we need to continue to collaborate to address the social determinants of health. Especially as we evolve from volume-based care to care that is based on value, we must be better prepared to address social challenges that often prevent individuals from accessing health care or achieving health goals. While we have done some good things, overall we must do a more effective job identifying unmet social needs, providing navigation services to assist those we serve in accessing community resources, and encouraging alignment between clinical and community services to ensure they are available and responsive to people's needs. Steps like these will lead to better health outcomes; they are imperative to improving the lives of all those we are called to serve.

And so, with gratitude to God who enables our healing ministry, we move forward as a committed people full of compassion and profound hope. As Pope Francis noted in his TED talk, "A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another 'you,' and another 'you,' and it turns into an 'us.' And so, does hope begin when we have an 'us'? No. Hope began with one 'you.'"



Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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