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HEALTH CARE/ What Defines a Catholic Hospital?

February Wed 17, 2010

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I have spent the last week in a hospital accompanying a close relative, so I haven’t had the opportunity to follow the news in order to prepare this column. On the other hand, health care is one of the most debated issues in the United States today, a debate that is revealing a lot about the expectations of the American people at this point in the history of the American dream. This week, however, I wish to share some of my impressions about the place of the Catholic Church in the current health care debate.

 

Two articles concerning health care caught my attention during this last week spent at a Catholic hospital in the New York City area. The first article concerns the future of one of the most well known Catholic hospital in the City, namely, St. Vincent’s Hospital. St Vincent’s is headquartered in the historic lower East Side area of the City. Indeed, its location close to Ground Zero, its reputation as a first class health care facilities, as well as its “Catholic” concern for the poor and powerless, its spiritual support and religious sensitivity was specially noted after the 9/11/2001 terrorist attack. Now St Vincent’s has had to implement great reduction in its budget (around 300 employees were fired last week) in order to survive a little more time. Observers are not too confident that St. Vincent’s will survive as a Catholic hospital. It will go the way other Catholic hospitals in this area have gone: they have been bought by powerful, profit-making institutions offering the best in technology and technique.

 

I visited my doctor at one such hospital in the Bronx. It used to be called “Our Lady of Victory” Hospital. It was a small, community-oriented hospital, open to the amazing diversity of people in its neighborhood. I remember the statue of Our Lady outside the main entrance as if welcoming the varied sons and daughters into their common home to share, even in the midst of their sickness and pain, the victory of Her Son. The statue is, of course, gone, and the chapel with the Blessed Sacrament is now a meditation room. I asked my doctor’s secretary, a “New York Puerto Rican” whether she has worked there before “Our Lady of Victory” Hospital became part of the Montefiori health care empire, and she said she had. Then I asked whether she noticed any difference now from the way it was then, and she said: “Things are more efficient now, but something is missing, a warmth, a human warmth associated with Our Lady” (I don’t think she had read Dante’s reference to the “caldo…” in his Hymn to the Virgin!).

 

“A more human warmth”: this Bronx Puerto Rican secretary had experienced what defines a Catholic hospital. Of course, the Catholic hospital will make every effort to avail itself of the best possible professional health care staff and the latest in life-saving technologies. It will indeed aim at excellence and not be content with being a “friendly place” in which to be when you are sick. The warmth the secretary detected, the warmth that defines the Catholic hospital is not some shapeless “good-feeling atmosphere.” Rather, it is the warmth of a concrete Presence with a face and a name: Jesus Christ. For Catholics, humanity is defined by the recognition that each human person is a particular, unique and unrepeatable relation with Him. If the Church is unable to offer the witness of the Presence that guides its health care hospital service, than it should try another form of health care program.

 

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