The Physician’s Calling: To Embrace His Role in the Physical and Spiritual Wellbeing of His Patient
By Brian J Burke
The practice of medicine has been transformed over the past century by the ever increasing technological advances. This progress has lead to the saving of countless lives, eradication of diseases, extension of life spans, and the alleviation of suffering. And yet, this increase in knowledge and technology is a double edged sword, for the physical aspects of disease and suffering have become the sole focus of both the physician and patient, while the metaphysical and spiritual aspects have been lost or rejected. The consequence of this has been a spiritual crisis in medicine where neither the physician, nor the patients are able to adequately endure the suffering that cannot be eradicated. This spiritual crisis continues to have negative impacts on the physician-patient relationship, undermining trust and the ability for complete physical, mental, and spiritual healing to occur. This crisis can be overcome by approaching medicine through a Catholic paradigm in which the physician must embrace his full vocation as one who brings healing not only to the body, but also helps the patient to recognize the redemptive value of his suffering and to return to the Sacraments of Healing in order to obtain the complete physical and spiritual healing that God gives. The goal of this paper is to establish the fullness of the physician’s vocation by showing how the physician partakes in Christ and His Church’s redeeming mission through the field of medicine, discuss suffering and its salvific nature, and finally, show the spiritual role the physician plays in the physician-patient relationship.
Christ himself is the Divine Physician. When He revealed the heart of his redemptive mission, he said “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” So to care for the dying and the sick, health care workers actively participate in the divine mission by providing life, both to the body and to the soul, for man cannot be seen as only one or the other. The health care worker imitates Christ as the Good Samaritan and acts as minister of God through the outpouring of love for the suffering person. And is not loving those who suffer the role of every Christian and of the Church? This is a part of the mission of redemption that marks the existence of the Spouse of Christ.
In the Charter for Health Care Workers, Blessed John Paul II is quoted as saying that “the Church…has always seen medicine as an important support for its own redeeming mission to humanity. In fact, service to man’s spirit cannot be fully effective except it be service to his psycho-physical unity.” In his address to the World Congress of Catholic Doctors, Blessed John Paul II says that Christ, being “the physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation even among her own members.” These works of healing are done on the priestly level through the sacraments of anointing and reconciliation, which are joined to the works of the doctors and nurses and other health care professionals. The work of such a professional has the same object, the human person, as that of the pastor. Both ministers act to orientate the suffering individual to the Cross of Christ.
Suffering is the paramount problem of man’s existence. “Illness and suffering have always been among the gravest problems confronted in human life. In illness, man experiences his powerlessness, his limitations, and his finitude. Every illness can make us glimpse death.” It is through the action of Adam and Eve that sin was brought into the world, and with it, suffering and death. The story of man’s attempt to evade both suffering and death is the stuff of ageless legends and the impetus to seek both the ancient and modern remedies that might stave off such a fate. Simply consider the 20th century and the number of procedures and medications that are designed to end pain and anguish. It is easy enough to buy Aspirin or Tylenol over the counter at the local drug store or to go to your doctor and ask him to prescribe something stronger. Even in the area of childbirth, a woman has free access to enough drugs to numb her body from the waist down, thus allowing her to escape the curse of Eve. And today’s healthcare is full of promises to slow or reverse the process of aging and the physical and mental suffering that accompanies it. This is not to say that pain medication or the avoidance of pain and suffering is immoral or should not be employed. Rather these points are only to show the attitude of the general public in regards to the ability and desire to avoid suffering as much as humanly possible. This aim in many cases can be quite appropriate given the debilitating nature of the various forms of suffering. Even the Catechism recognizes that “illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God.” However, the avoidance of suffering and pain can be taken too far. For some, it has become something overwhelmingly evil and must be eradicated at all costs, even at the cost of rejecting their God. This is the danger that man faces when he does not recognize the redeemed nature of suffering that has been brought about through Christ’s passion. Whereas it is not wrong for man to desire an end to suffering, he must also simultaneously embrace it for his greater good, for though “suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil…Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation.” With this understanding suffering can be viewed as a gift from God; as a way for man to work towards his salvation.
St. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians of the relationship of suffering and the Cross. He says, “I fill up in my body what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body which is the Church.” This reflects the new meaning of the suffering of man. No longer is it simply the curse, but now it is the blessing of God. Just as the doctor takes part of the salvific mission of the Church through the ministry to the sick, those who are sick and suffering take part in the redeeming mission of Christ. In the words of John Paul II, “On the cross, Christ made his own all the weight of evil and took away the sin of the world (Jn 1:29), of which sickness is but a consequence. By his passion and death on the cross, Christ has given new meaning to suffering: now it can configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive passion.” By his death and resurrection,Christ has redeemed the world. In that action he has allowed the suffering man to partake in that redemption and within this new meaning of suffering for the Christian, there is a threefold salvific attitude that exists:
an ‘awareness’ of its reality ‘without minimizing it or exaggerating it’; ‘acceptance,’ ‘not with a more or less blind resignation’ but in the serene knowledge that ‘the Lord can and wishes to draw a good from evil’; ‘the oblation,’ ‘made out of love for the Lord and one’s brothers and sisters.’
To consider these three points in another way, one can use the words knowledge, trust, and action. In that awareness there is knowledge of the nature of the illness and suffering and of the cross which is to be borne. This is critical, because as Pope JohnPaulII(from whom this threefold salvific attitude comes) said, the patient neither wants to minimize or exaggerate it, but rather embrace it as it truly is. Through the acceptance there must be a trust in the Lord. The patient must realize that in his Incarnation and Passion, “Christ has raised human suffering to the level of redemption.” In this way, Suffering becomes not a cruel punishment but a means of salvation, and so the patient must rejoice in the opportunity to suffer because it has been allowed by the Lord, who desires the salvation of all. The third part of this attitude is action. The oblation of whichJohnPaul speaks requires that action must be taken. It may only be an interior movement of the will, but nonetheless it is essential for this suffering to be fruitful. The patient needs to consciously make the decision to offer up this suffering on behalf of the body ofChrist. In this way, not only will the graces be obtained, but the psychological affect will be greater. Through his suffering, the patient has entered into the redemptive act ofChrist and it is the physician’s role to help orientate the patient towards this end.
The ministerial journey of Christwas filled with numerous healings. He had a great compassion towards the sick and infirm and “his many healings of every kind of infirmity are a resplendent sign that ‘God has visited his people’ and that the Kingdomof Godis close at hand…He has come to heal the whole man, soul and body; he is the physician the sick have need of.” Christ, as stated before, is the Divine Physician. He had such a compassion for the sick and suffering that he “took our infirmities and bore our diseases” when he was “like a sheep…led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer.” His sacrifice was his ultimate act of healing for each individual who would profess his name. Moreover, it was a renewal of the world, a healing of a world torn apart by sin. To inaugurate this healing of the worldChrist first healed those whom he had come into the world to redeem. In each miracle he performed to heal the body, he also was healing the soul of that individual. However, His healing ministry was not limited to his lifetime nor did it end with his death and resurrection, but rather He has set the example for his disciples and called them on to continue this ministry in the salvation of the world.
At a point during His ministry, Christsent His disciples into the world. He “gave them authority over unclean spirits to drive them out and to cure every disease and every illness.” In this command, the disciples were called to act as the Good Samaritan to those they encountered. This parable “witnesses to the fact that Christ’s revelation of the salvific meaning of suffering is in no way identified with an attitude of passivity.” Rather, Christ commanded his disciples to action, to bring healing both in the physical and spiritual realms to those they encountered. This command and action was not limited to the lifetime of Christ, but went beyond his ascension, as seen in the Acts of the Apostles, especially in the healing miracles of Peter. Through His example and commands to his disciples, Christ calls on all of mankind to bring comfort to the suffering. In the parable of the Judgment Day, Christ relates how at the end of time, the King will come and say to those who sit on his right, “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…I was…ill and you cared for me.” Those to whom he speaks reply “Lord, when did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” They reply in this way because they who are righteous do not realize the depth of the service that they perform and are answered by the King when he says “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” This parable is critical for today’s physician. Modern medicine attempts to cure the disease of the person in piecemeal and once the symptoms of the disease are removed, then modern health care guidelines would dictate that no more treatment is necessary due to cost prohibitions. The doctors have already lost a great deal of support from insurance companies and from hospital administrators in the treatment of the individual patient. They are now under greater pressure to cut costs wherever possible, even if that means that time with the patient and the ability to treat the whole person, body, mind, and soul, is lost. This is the attitude that the parable of Judgment day condemns. And so the modern physician must turn away from the pressure of the secular world, and return to Christ, so that the physician may live out the example Christ has given.
With these commands, the doctor is now called to enter into a deeper relationship with the patient. It is important for the doctor to enter into this relationship to prevent the forcible removal of the identity of the person to occur. It is imperative for the doctor to see the patient as a person to be treated and to be loved, not a disease to be cured, but in so many instances this is not the case.
This human person, the patient, has an inherit dignity that must be recognized. Before proceeding, we must remember what a person is. KarolWojtyladefines a person as
An objective entity, which as a definite subject has the closest contacts with the whole (external) world and is most intimately involved with it precisely because of its inwardness, its interior life. It must be added that it communicates thus not only with the visible, but also with the invisible world, and most importantly, with God.
Because the individual both exists and communicates with the entirety of reality, that is both the visible and invisible, and communicates with God, he has a special dignity and value. This value must be recognized in medicine. However, the materialistic and reductionistic philosophies have successfully created a certain biomedical culture. “This culture of biomedicine facilitates our viewing the patient as “other,” an object that is synonymous with his or her biologically based disease.” When a doctor enters into the relationship with the patient, they must instead see the person who is to be loved. For not only did Christ command that his disciples go forth and heal, or that they see Him in the poorest of their brethren, but also that they should “love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” When the doctor sees the patient as a human person and chooses to love that person as himself, the doctor then can become Christ to that person.
There is a very special interpersonal relationship between the doctor and the patient. This relationship is “‘a meeting between trust and conscience.’ The “trust” of one who is ill and suffering and hence in need, who entrusts himself to the “conscience” of another who can help him in his need and who comes to his assistance to care for him and cure him.” Just as those who were sick and suffering “came to hear [Jesus] and to be healed of their diseases,” so too does the patient come to the doctor with faith in his ability to heal. This healing can occur on many levels since man is composed of more than just a physical body. Truly, it is proper that the doctor should seek to heal not only the body, but also the soul and the mind, just asChrist did. It is in this moment that the fullness of the physician’s vocation lies. The call of the physician and his relationship with his patients is seen in the Old Testament book of Sirach where it is written that
… God has also established him in his profession. From God the doctor has wisdom …. God makes the earth yield healing herbs which the prudent should not neglect….Through which the doctor eases pain, and the druggist prepares his medicines. Thus God’s work continues without cease in its efficacy on the surface of the earth.
The very profession of medicine is one given by God in order for God’s work and glory to continue on this earth. Within his vocation, the physician is obligated to recognize his particular call as an instrument of God to bring healing to those around him. One of the most profound ways the doctor can accomplish the treating of the person is by helping the patient to recognize his vocation as a patient. This vocation is that which was discussed earlier concerning the uniting of the suffering of the patient with the Cross of Christ. In this interpersonal relationship, the doctor is Christto the patient, healing and serving in the most loving ways those who are broken and outcast and helping them to “take up his cross, and follow me.” On the patient’s side of this relationship, he becomes Christ for the doctor by both giving the doctor an opportunity to serve him in his suffering and by his offering up of his suffering in union with the suffering of Christ and being a witness of love for all of mankind. When this profound relationship is realized between the doctor and the patient, medicine is no longer restricted to a treatment of the disease but becomes also an intervention on the human body that “touches not only the tissues, the organs, and their functions, but involves also at various levels the person himself.”
The healing of the patient cannot be completed solely on the physical level. There is necessarily a spiritual component to the healing. In Sirach, it is written
My son, when you are ill, do not delay, but pray to God, for it is he who heals.Flee wickedness and purify your hands; cleanse your heart of every sin….Then give the doctor his place lest he leave; you need him too, for there are times when recovery is in his hands. He too prays to God that his diagnosis may be correct and his treatment bring about a cure. Whoever is a sinner before his Maker will be defiant toward the doctor.
The patient is called to turn to God for a spiritual healing in the midst of his illness, recognizing that both physical and spiritual healing is given only by God. And as described above, in Christ’s healing ministry there is a consistent pairing of physical healing with spiritual healing. This same ministry has been passed to his Apostles and disciples, and as such, throughout the centuries there has been a close relationship between the Priest and the Physician. The physician can provide the physical healing, while the priest is able to offer the medicine of the soul. In a recent address for the Twentieth World Day of the Sick, Pope Benedict wrote about the need to emphasize the “’sacraments of healing,’ that is to say the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation and that of the Anointing of the Sick.” These Sacraments offer the physical manifestation of God’s grace to the patient. These are an “expression of the physicality of our faith, which embraces the whole person, body and soul.” The physician is called to encourage the patient to return, like the prodigal son, to God for a completeness of his healing. The Sacrament of Penance can be extremely important during a time of illness. Pope Benedict writes
A time of suffering, in which one could be tempted to abandon oneself to discouragement and hopelessness, can thus be transformed into a time of grace so as to return to oneself, and like the prodigal son of the parable, to think anew about one’s life, recognizing its errors and failures, longing for the embrace of the Father, and following the pathway to his home. He, in his great love, always and everywhere watches over our lives and awaits us so as to offer to every child that returns to him the gift of full reconciliation and joy.
This is a crucial action that the suffering patient can take in his recognition of his role in salvific suffering. This is that interior act of the will that recognizes the gift of suffering that has been given, which then turns to an external action. Through this Sacrament, the patient is able to enter into a deeper relationship with Christ, and thus bring the salvific nature of his suffering to a deeper level. The physician who recognizes this can be a source of encouragement and support for the struggling patient. The relationship the patient has with that physician may mean the difference between despair and hope in their suffering of illness, and so it is imperative for the physician to fulfill his role in the spiritual awakening of the patient. This necessarily requires that the physician, as described in Sirach, have a relationship with God. He too must turn to God for guidance and support in his mission of healing, for all of the physician’s abilities and successes derive only from Him. Moreover, the physician must have a relationship with the clergy who bring the Sacraments to the sick and suffering. This relationship can be seen in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, where the healing ministry of the priest intersects most directly with that of the physician. Pope Benedict writes
In the Anointing of the Sick, the sacramental matter of the oil is offered to us, so to speak, “as God’s medicine … which now assures us of his goodness, offering us strength and consolation, yet at the same time points beyond the moment of the illness towards the definitive healing, the resurrection (cf. Jas 5:14)”
This Sacrament allows the attention to be given to the sick that the Church has called for, and in doing so reminds the pastors and those serving the sick, that what is done to the least of their brethren, is done for Christ.
The Sacraments of Penance and the Anointing of the Sick both have their source in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, that source and summit of all Sacraments. Concerning the Eucharist, Pope Benedict states that “received at a time of illness, it contributes in a singular way to working this transformation, associating the person who partakes of the Body and Blood of Christ to the offering that he made of himself to the Father for the salvation of all.” The reception of the Eucharist is the ultimate act of unification a patient can have with Christ in this world. As the patient and Christ become one in that moment, the suffering offered up to Christ crucified reaches its infinite depth of meaning.
Each of the Sacraments can be special gifts that the patient receives. But to do so, the patient must be made aware of their existence, of the power of healing that can be given to the patient through these gifts of God. In these Sacraments, the priest and the physician meet, acting as emissaries offering the mercy of God. The physician brings knowledge and support, while the priest brings the power of the Sacraments to the patient. This aspect of the physician’s role cannot be ignored, for it is an integral part of the healing of the patient. In answering his vocation, the physician has been called to minister to the physical and spiritual needs of his patient. Moreover, the physician takes part in establishing the Kingdom of God, for in that Kingdom,
Suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization in to a “civilization of love.” In this love the salvific meaning of suffering is completely accomplished and reaches its definitive dimensions.
The vocation of the physician calls him not only to bring healing to the body, but to recognize that suffering transforms into love, love of the one suffering and love of God. The acts of love that are man’s response to those suffering can act as a pebble in a pond, sending ripples of change throughout the whole of society. The physician, by approaching his suffering patient with genuine love, has great capacity to do good, even when he cannot eradicate the suffering. This love is what can open the mind of the patient to a deeper understanding of their suffering, and give them the ability to find the fullness of their healing by turning to God and His Sacraments.
The past century of medicine has brought many new advances but not without a significant price. The physician and patient have both suffered as the spiritual aspects of their respective roles have been minimized or eradicated. It is time for the physician to reclaim that lost part of his vocation, his part in the spiritual healing of the patient. This occurs through the establishment of a Christocentric and loving relationship between the physician and the patient, which allows the physician to guide the patient back to Christ and His healing Sacraments. In this way the physician may live out the parables of the Last Judgment and the Good Samaritan, bringing the patient physical healing and helping him in his journey to God.
Benedict. (2011, November 20). Message of the holy father on the occasion of the twentieth world day of the sick. Retrieved from http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/sick/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20111120_world-day-of-the-sick-2012_en.html
Catechism of the Catholic Church.New York: Double Day, 1995.
Hroscikoski, Mary, O.S.F. M.D. “The Patient and the Disease as ‘Other’”. Franciscans and Healthcare.Ed.Elise Saggau,O.S.F. St.Bonaventure,New York: The Franciscan Institute, 2001.
JohnPaulII, Discourse in Lourdes, August 15, 1983, n. 4. Rpt. in Charter for Health Care Workers. Ed. Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance.Boston:St.PaulBooks and Media. p. 59.
John Paul, II. Salvifici Doloris. Boston: St.PaulBooks and Media.
JohnPaulII, To the world Congress of Catholic doctors, Oct. 3, 1982, in Insegnamenti V/3, p. 676, n. 3. Rpt. in Charter for Health Care Workers. Ed. Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance.Boston:St.PaulBooks and Media. p. 28.
The New American Bible.New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1992.
Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance. Charter for Health Care Workers.Boston:St.PaulBooks and Media.
Wojtyla, Karol (John Paul II). Love and Responsibility. 1981. Trans.H.T.Willetts.San Francisco:Ignatius, 1993.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragrpahs 362-367 it states that “the human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God. In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person. But “soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man. The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit: Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature. The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God – it is not “produced” by the parents – and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection.”
 Paragraphs1420-1421 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the sacraments of Healing in this way: “Through the sacraments of Christian initiation, man receives the new life of Christ. Now we carry this life “in earthen vessels,” and it remains “hidden with Christ in God.” We are still in our “earthly tent,” subject to suffering, illness, and death. This new life as a child of God can be weakened and even lost by sin. The Lord Jesus Christ, physician of our souls and bodies, who forgave the sins of the paralytic and restored him to bodily health, has willed that his Church continue, in the power of the Holy Spirit, his work of healing and salvation, even among her own members. This is the purpose of the two sacraments of healing: the sacrament of Penance and the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.”
 Charter For Health Care Workers, 5.
 Insegnamenti V/3, 676, n.3. found in Charter for Health Care Workers, p. 28.
 Salvifici Doloris 26.
 Discourse in Lourdes, August 15, 1983, n.4 found in The Charter for Health Care Workers, p. 59, also found in CCC 1505.
 The Charter for Health Care Workers, 54.
 Salvifici Doloris 19.
 Mt 8:17; cf. Isa 53:4.
 Mt 10:1; cf. Mk 3: 14-19, Lk 6: 13-16, Acts 1:13.
 Salvifici Doloris 30.
 The Charter for Health Care Workers, 2.
 Sirach 38: 1-2, 4, 7-8.
 The Charter for Health Care Workers, 40.
 Sirach 38: 9-10, 12-15.
 Salvifici Doloris 30
 The implementation of these ideas is very possible. To do so there are few steps that can be taken:
- Be aware of the needs of the patient and have knowledge concerning the salvific nature of suffering
- Have knowledge of practical recommendations for patients including documents, encyclicals, books, pamphlets, and individuals in the community, particularly clergy, who can be of assistance.
- Most importantly, the physician needs to earn the right to have this discussion with the patient, which means the physician needs to be a font of love for those around him and prove that he is willing to live out the very life he is calling his patients to strive for. To do so, it is important for the physician to have an active spiritual life and frequent the Sacraments himself.