By SR. MARY HADDAD, RSM
CHA president and chief executive officer
The coronavirus pandemic, which is the greatest public health crisis that most of us have faced in our lifetime, has presented Catholic health care with immense and unprecedented challenges in the span of just a few months. It has also demonstrated once again how our healing ministry steps up and rises to the call to care during a crisis.
While the challenges of responding to COVID-19 will remain with us for the foreseeable future, we have already seen the same unwavering commitment by our caregivers that is the hallmark of our founding congregations. Our doctors, nurses, chaplains, and all of our colleagues who are caring at the bedside or supporting this sacred work reflect the enduring values of justice, compassion, preferential option for those who are poor and marginalized, respect for life, and the common good.
The early history of Catholic health care in the United States is replete with stories of religious women who demonstrated a selfless commitment to care for patients during wars, epidemics and times of extreme scarcity.
The Incarnate Word Foundation is displaying four billboards with this message in and around St. Louis on behalf of St. Louis Catholic Sisters. Thirteen congregations are partnering in the project. The billboards will be up for eight weeks.
The chapter of Catholic health care being written today contains stories of tireless and selfless service, stories of caring communities, stories of being a voice for those unable to be heard, and stories of removing barriers to care for all regardless of ability to pay or immigration status. Through these collective actions we continue the mission of Catholic health care.
And while we can be proud of our work so far, we also need to recognize how this pandemic has exposed issues of health disparity and focused a bright light on the importance of a strong public health system. It also has demonstrated the dire need for health care financing reform. These are challenges that we must confront head-on and with the same determination and courage that we've exhibited in responding to the needs of COVID-19 patients.
Although chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, asthma and hypertension are some of the reported risk indicators for COVID, it is well documented that underlying social conditions including inadequate health care, poverty, unemployment, unaffordable housing, and food scarcity have put individuals at greater risk.
The fact that black Americans account for 13% of the U.S. population, yet represent 25% of all coronavirus deaths underscores the harsh reality of health disparities in this country. Lending our voices to the calls for racial justice that have cried out across this country in recent weeks is not enough — we must take action to ensure that equal access to public health and safety, and to high-quality care, is a fundamental human right.
We also know that the pandemic has exacerbated the fear, isolation and financial turmoil being felt by so many and has highlighted the mental health issues confronting our society. Unfortunately, COVID has also disproportionately impacted the frailest among us, with 32,000 coronavirus deaths linked to nursing homes where, once again, racial disparities were revealed. Again, lending our voices on behalf of expanded mental health coverage and services, and adequately funded eldercare programs and long-term care is needed — but so is action to make sure that better public policy is enacted and put into practice.
With all these challenges before us, it is clear that we are at a threshold that we must boldly step through.
During the virtual Catholic Health Assembly last month, I referenced the book The Soul's Slow Ripening, in which the author, Christine Valters Paintner, tells us that in the Celtic tradition thresholds are the thin times or places where heaven and earth are closer together, and the veil between the two worlds is very thin. The author goes on to say that thresholds are challenging because they demand that we step into the in-between place of letting go of what has been, while awaiting what is still to come. Thresholds are rich and graced places of transformation.
The founders of our health ministries had the courage to move beyond their known reality. They responded to God's call and trusted in God's abiding presence.
Today, we too are called to trust God, to embrace what is emerging in Catholic health care, and to have the courage to step through the threshold that is now before us.
The healing ministry of Jesus continues through our compassionate care for patients and families, including end-of-life care; it is expressed through our demand for an ethical allocation of resources including testing, medical supplies and a soon-to-be vaccine; and it is heard through our public voice, advocating for funding in support of Medicaid, affordable health coverage and residential care and hospitals, especially safety net hospitals.
COVID didn't teach us anything we didn't already know, but it has fueled our will to act. And as an essential ministry of the Catholic Church, we are impelled to act by stepping forward to bring our patients, our communities and nation to a greater wholeness.
Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association
of the United States
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