Health system, church representatives cultivate deep bonds

May 1, 2022

Strengthening the Catholic identity of the health ministry is their mutual aim


Want to know what is happening in the 10 dioceses and archdioceses that correspond to the Mercy health system's service area in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma? Talk to Jared Bryson, the system's vice president of mission and church relations.


He reads those dioceses' newsletters, mailings, social media feeds and website content. He's in continual contact with the dioceses' bishops and staff. Prior to the pandemic, he was regularly on the road, visiting the dioceses and interacting with their representatives at church and hospital functions. He follows the bishops' Facebook and Twitter posts. He prays with and for the bishops. One of the bishops baptized Bryson's third child.

Bishop Michael Duca of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attends the 2019 blessing of Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital, part of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System. Next to the bishop is Sr. Uyen P. Vu, FMOL, who works in mission services at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center, the campus that houses the children's hospital.

Peter Guarisco Jr., senior vice president for mission integration at Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System in Louisiana and Mississippi, has achieved a similar level of communion with the leaders of four dioceses and one archdiocese that align with the health system's ministries in the states where it operates. To sweeten the connection, Guarisco has been known to come to diocesan offices bearing Italian cookies made from recipes passed down through generations of his family.

As top mission executives in their respective systems, Bryson and Guarisco know that it is essential that leaders in Catholic health care form deep and lasting bonds with representatives of Catholic dioceses where their systems operate.

The effort to cultivate strong relationships is reciprocal. Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, is the newly named chair of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Subcommittee on Health Care Issues. Bishop Olson says it's a priority for him and the subcommittee to promote close collaboration between the church and its health ministries so that they will forge a unified and coordinated response to challenges. Bishop Olson says the overarching goal is to foster communion among the ministries of the church so that those ministries can better carry out the healing mission of Jesus.

Peter Guarisco Jr., right, gathers with mission colleagues from Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System and staff from the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a group photo. The group came together in February 2020 to attend a chapel blessing at Our Lady of the Lake Children's Hospital. Guarisco is senior vice president for mission integration at the health system.

Church's public face
For all Catholic health care facilities and systems, it is the responsibility of sponsor boards to ensure ministry sites are properly maintaining their Catholic identity and furthering Jesus' healing work. The bishops have a particular interest in system and hospital adherence to the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services as a way to maintain Catholic identity. Ultimately it is a bishop or a cardinal, in his purview as a church ordinary, who says whether a hospital or health system in his diocese or archdiocese is officially Catholic.

"The Pastoral Role of the Diocesan Bishop in Catholic Health Care Ministry," a document published by the USCCB with input from CHA, explains bishops' authority over church ministries. It also offers instruction on how bishops and ministry leaders can best work together.

Bishop Olson

Bishop Olson says it is crucial for Catholic health ministry representatives and their diocesan counterparts to maintain ongoing, open, transparent relations so that the facilities can thrive as ministries of the church. His subcommittee stays abreast of what is going on in the health care field and works to unite the church and its ministries to pursue their shared mission.

Bryson notes that Catholic health care is oftentimes the public face of the church in the wider community — and that is particularly true in places where Catholics make up a small percentage of a local population.

With its special concern for those who are poor and vulnerable, Catholic health care is an integral ministry of the church — not a separate entity from the church. Bryson says it is necessary for ministry facilities and the dioceses to be in sync with one another in their work.

Guarisco says being aligned with the local dioceses helps make sure "we are faithful to who we say we are."

Available and present
Bishop Olson says success in these relationships requires the church leaders and health care executives to be available and present to one another. Guarisco says at FMOLHS the relationships with diocesan bishops and staff are a top priority for system- and local-level executives, especially mission leaders. Diocesan bishops and staff are among the first people new health care executives meet when they are hired. Bryson says the same is true at Mercy.

The health system representatives — particularly those in executive and mission roles — stay in close contact with the dioceses. They do this though calls, emails and texts and in-person meetings. They educate one another, keep each other informed, seek each other's guidance. They stay ahead of issues that could arise with health facility activities, collaborations and business deals. Bryson says he keeps a list of aspects of business deals that are of interest or concern to bishops and that must be addressed in negotiations with potential collaborators that are other-than-Catholic. He brings bishops in the loop on business activity as early as possible, especially business activity that could raise any concern.

Both Bryson and Guarisco emphasize it's been very important for them and their ministry colleagues to be visible and involved in the state conferences of Catholic bishops. For instance, FMOLHS's chief executive and top mission leadership has led informational sessions at the Louisiana bishop conference's annual meeting.

Bryson says all this groundwork proves vital in many situations, including when Catholic facilities are going through rebranding that could impact public perception of their Catholic identity, negotiating a change in the makeup of the system or determining how services are to be delivered.

Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis and Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer, visit at CHA's Theology and Ethics Colloquium in St. Louis in March.

Bishop Olson adds that given the flashpoints that arise around services concerning life and death and religious liberty, the church and its health ministries sometimes make decisions at odds with what the dominant culture supports.

Some examples he gave include prohibitions against providing abortions or prescriptions for lethal drugs to be used in assisted suicides, sterilization and "discernment about the ethical path regarding transgendered people and ministry facilities' involvement in their care."

The health ministry and church representatives must be clear on the essentiality of adhering to the primary principles of the Catholic faith, including respect for human dignity and the sacredness of life from conception to natural death, Bishop Olson says.

Bryson says the health ministry and diocesan staffs work in the context of a highly polarized and politically charged society. And division and fissures of opinion within the church add a level of complexity for those seeking concordance.

Bishop Olson says that additionally, the rampant and increasing public distrust of institutions extends to distrust of the church and of health care experts, making it more difficult to build community and find common cause.

Looking ahead, Bishop Olson anticipates that the health care and diocesan partners will increase their focus on trust building with the public.

Bryson adds that he believes health care and church representatives will ramp up their joint efforts to address the social determinants of health and to find more effective ways to aid refugee resettlement in communities. People on the margins of society struggle to get housing, transportation and other basics and the church and its ministries have a long history of addressing these needs, he says.

Bryson notes that by working from a position of mutual respect and by keeping communication open, diocesan authorities and health ministry executives have navigated the occasional misunderstandings.

Guarisco says, "Many people seem to think the bishops are or should be superhuman, but I always see the humanity of the bishops. I have great respect for the shepherding that these men are doing — for what they support and for what they are faithfully preaching. They are doing what they are called to do."

Bryson agrees, "These are very loving, very pastoral men who are just trying to figure it all out, just like everyone else is. Yes, we all have our roles, but it is important that we acknowledge each other's humanity. And I want to be a part of their lives" in this way.

USCCB guide explains how clergy, ministry leaders can build bonds

A guide that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops updated last year sets forth a vision for how bishops should oversee the Catholic health ministries in their dioceses or archdioceses.

The second edition of "The Pastoral Role of the Diocesan Bishop in Catholic Health Care Ministry," which is available on the USCCB website, sets forth the Gospel context for Catholic health care, details some of the current challenges and opportunities for the health ministry, delineates responsibilities of diocesan bishops and recommends steps for fostering collaboration between the bishops and health ministry representatives. It also explains how dioceses can develop guidelines and procedures having to do with Catholic health ministries.

The section on fostering collaboration includes these guidelines for the diocesan bishop:

  • He should work together with leaders of ministry health systems and facilities.
  • He should promote collaboration among those involved with the church's health and social service ministries, including sponsors, hospital administrators, Catholic hospices and Catholic social service agencies.
  • He should partner with the health ministry to provide formation opportunities for health ministry leaders and staff.
  • He should ensure the availability of effective palliative care and hospice programming at ministry facilities.

Copyright © 2022 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

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