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Healthcare Conference Focuses on Crisis and Faith
The conference closed with a question and answer session led by Bishop Robert McManus.
Following Christ's call to care for the sick, it was the Catholic Church that pioneered and codified treatment and prevention of illness and injuries, having founded in the Middle Ages the world's first hospitals.
Today, amidst breakneck advances in science and a headlong disassembly of a God-centered society, the Church seeks to reassert its role in healthcare, an effort that couldn't come soon enough.
"We're at a crisis point," says Marie Romagnano, RN, founder of a ministry that's leading the charge.
The ministry, Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, held its 9th Annual Medicine, Bioethics, and Spirituality Conference on April 10-11. The conference, led by clergy, scientists, medical experts, and ethicists, not only revealed and clarified the challenges the Church faces, but defined for some 140 healthcare professionals from around the country their rights and responsibilities.
An attendee from New Jersey, May Jen Amolat-Apiado, a lecturer and consultant on forensic pathology, said that in modern-day Western medicine, "bioethical formation is sadly lacking, and I trained in 'excellent' institutions."
The Daunting Challenges
For the Church, whose principles rest upon the inviolable dignity of each person from conception to natural death — and God as their Creator — the challenges are daunting.
Things that were once unthinkable have now become not only feasible, but routinely practiced.
Take, for instance, the following matters that were given heavy attention at the conference, which was held at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass.:
• In-vitro fertilization — The Church opposes in-vitro fertilization, whereby embryos are conceived through a technical procedure and eliminated if found to be "flawed."
"It replaces the conjugal act with the technical procedure," Fr. Mark Yavarone, OMV, a professor of bioethics at Blessed John XXII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., told the gathering. "It replaces God's way of creating life with a human method of creating life. ... The child is treated as a product rather than an equal."
There are 50,000 children born each year through in-vitro fertilization, and in the process, hundreds of thousands of embryos are thrown out, frozen, or kept for experimentation.
• Embryonic stem cell research — The Church opposes embryonic stem cell research because it destroys human life — human embryos being the weakest among us. Plus, as several speakers noted, the procedure is proving to be unnecessary to goal of regenerating damaged tissues and organs. Research has shown that adult stem cells may have just as much potential, or more.
As an example of how science and Catholicism don't run counter to each other, Fr. Yavarone noted that the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan, a researcher who opposes the use of embryonic stem cells in favor of adult stem cells, not just for ethical reasons but also because adult stem cells show a greater potential for the treatment of diseases.
• Abortion — Science has proven that life begins at the moment of conception. Therefore, based upon the natural law and Scripture, abortion constitutes "the deliberate killing of an innocent human being," as Blessed John Paul II declared in 1995 (Evangelium Vitae, 62).
"There's this impression that what's being removed from the womb during an abortion is just globs of tissue, but it's a human being. There can be no dispute about this anymore," said the conference's opening presenter, Dr. Bryan Thatcher, founder and director of Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy, a Marian lay apostolate.
There have been approximately 50 million abortions performed in the United States since its legalization in 1973.
• Contraception — The Church opposes birth control because it undermines the purpose of sex as the means for procreation in favor of sex as purely a sexual act done for pleasure alone.
Today, 89 percent of women of child-bearing age are using contraceptives.
• Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide — The Catholic Church uses the same principles to condemn euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide as it does to condemn abortion. Only God has the authority to end life just as He has the only authority to begin life.
As Fr. Yavarone pointed out , none of these matters are new to the Church. For instance, he said, St. Augustine wrote 1700 years ago that "it is never licit to kill another: even if he should wish it, indeed if he request it because, hanging between life and death, he begs for help in freeing the soul struggling against the bonds of the body and longing to be released. ..."
Physician assisted suicide has recently been legalized in Washington, Oregon, and Montana.
A Frightening Trend
In a panel discussion to close the conference, Dr. Scot Bateman, division chief of Pediatric Critical Care at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, noted how the "culture of death" has made startling inroads even into pediatric care.
For example, he said, more and more parents are deciding to withdraw life support from fetuses in critical condition who show a chromosomal defect consistent with Down syndrome — even when the life support is showing positive results. They justify their decision by claiming their wish to prevent "pain and suffering" of the fetus or of the child upon birth, Dr. Bateman said.
"That (attitude) is totally new in the last few years," Dr. Bateman said. "In the past, it always was families wanting us to keep pushing and keep pushing to provide medical care that we thought was unjustifiable. But it's switching over a little bit, and I find it to be very distressing."
He continued, "I try to counsel and be a lay minister in these situations and say, 'I think there is value here even if the child is not going to be perfect.' These are issues we have to grapple with as this culture really becomes more pervasive."
The Whole Person
Part educational seminar, part spiritual retreat, the conference included prayer, Holy Mass, and two full days of training. Specifically, the training was geared toward helping attendees identify bioethical principles and ways on which to apply them to patient care. Sponsored by Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy and the Marian Fathers, the conference was geared to all medical professionals as well as social workers, hospital chaplains and other clergy, and educators.
Though the Catholic Church's influence has considerably faded in Western culture, the Church remains the largest non-governmental provider of healthcare services in the world. Considering that modern healthcare seems to encompass all that's promising about science and technology and all that's destructive about consigning God to the periphery, the Church has a formidable challenge and an enviable opportunity.
Which brings us to Marie Romagnano, RN, a nurse case manager who founded Nurses for Divine Mercy Sept. 11, 2001. Nurses for Divine Mercy grew and enventually developed into Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy when doctors and other medical professionals desired to join its ranks.
Its mission became twofold: to gather various healthcare professionals into its organization, and to offer quality educational programs that combine medicine, bioethics, and spirituality. Its goal was to bring into patient care a unique professional formation that integrates the best of medical science with bio-medical ethics, pastoral care, Judeo-Christian Revelation, and Divine Mercy spirituality.
In 2006, Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy became an official apostolate of the Marians. They work closely with Bryan Thatcher, MD, and the Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy.
Now the Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy has grown to include more than 3,000 members worldwide.
For Marie, it's not merely a point of pride to emphasize that faith-based care draws from Western civilization's earliest medical traditions. Rather, it's a point of practicality. For early Christians — inspired by how strongly Jesus identified with the sick — providing medical care meant caring for the whole person: the physical person and the spiritual person.
Nurse Marie calls it "total patient care."
In her conference talks, she emphasized that incredible advancements in medicine and science don't change the simple fact that spirituality can bring comfort, even healing — even redemption — for the sick and dying.
Moreover, bringing this attitude to mainstream medical practices is not only advisable, she said, it's required.
Indeed, as she pointed out, the independent, not-for-profit organization, The Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 15,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States, requires that spiritual assessments be made of patients. For example, such spiritual assessment may include the following questions directed to the patient or his or her family:
• Who or what provides the patient with strength and hope?
• Does the patient use prayer in his or her life?
• What type of spiritual/religious support does the patient desire?
• What is the name of the patient's clergy, ministers, chaplains, pastor, rabbi?
• What are the patient's spiritual goals?
• Is there a role of church/synagogue in the patient's life?
• How does your faith help the patient cope with illness?
So what does Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy seek to achieve?
In short, to teach healthcare professionals to approach all medical matters with the understanding that "humans are God's greatest masterpiece," said Nurse Marie, "and they deserve not only the best medical care, but the best spiritual care, as well."
In addition to the emphasis she places on bioethics and Church doctrine, Nurse Marie said that Catholics in particular have an instrument at their disposal that, in the realm of the sick and dying, is at least as powerful as any medical breakthrough: the Divine Mercy message and devotions, as revealed by our Lord to St. Maria Faustina Kowalska in the 1930s.
"The Chaplet of Divine Mercy, an intercessory prayer, was given to St. Faustina especially as a remedy for the dying," Marie said. "Our Lord tells us, 'Say unceasingly the chaplet that I have taught you. Whoever will recite it will receive great mercy at the hour of death'" (Diary of St. Faustina, 687). "The Chaplet of Divine Mercy is the most powerful prayer next to the Mass that you can say for the dying," said Marie, who received her spiritual training from the Marians.
Relying on Jesus' promises through St. Faustina, Nurse Marie said, healthcare professionals can be "the spiritual link to Christ ... you are His merciful presence at the bedside of the patient. By prayer and by using our hands and our hearts, healthcare professionals can bring God's grace of healing and consolation to their patients and the patients' families."
Specifically, said Marie, for patients or their families who are open to spiritual care, medical staff can offer copies of the image of Divine Mercy and prayercards with the chaplet. "By using the Divine Mercy devotion," said Marie, who always wears a pin on her nurse's uniform with the image of the Divine Mercy, "it gives patients and their family members a tremendous amount of hope in the promises of Jesus."
Additionally, she encourages medical staff to pick a time of day, before or after work, and pray the chaplet for the intentions of those who die within the next 24 hours.
Through her conferences — including one earlier this year in Florida — Nurse Marie casts her net wide. Covering such topics as the New Evangelization, the spirituality of suffering of St. Faustina, a case study of a near-death accident victim, the Health and Human Services Mandate regarding contraception, and substance abuse, the conference speakers also included:
• Most Rev. Robert Joseph McManus, S.T.D. — Bishop of the Diocese of Worcester (Mass.);
• Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC — Theologian, author, and vice-postulator of St. Faustina's canonization cause;
• Very Rev. Joseph G. Roesch, MIC — Vicar General of the Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception;
• Sr. M. Donata Farbaniec, OLM — Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy;
• Very. Rev. Kazimierz "Kaz" Chwalek, MIC — Provincial Superior of the Marians' Mother of Mercy Province;
• Mark Rollo, MD — Natural family planning medical consultant;
• Lucy A. Bayer-Zwirello, MD — Chief of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center, in Brighton, Mass.; and
• Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC — Author and director of the Association of Marian Helpers Centers in Stockbridge, Mass.
The Role of the Laity
Bishop McManus noted that the goals of the healthcare conference align beautifully with those set by the Second Vatican Council, which addressed relations between the Church and the modern world.
He told attendees, "It's a blessing to be in a position where you can evangelize and be an example" in secular hospitals.
Carrying that theme, Fr. Kaz noted that Blessed George Matulaitis (1871-1927), known as the Renovator of the Marian Congregation back when it was on the verge of extinction in the turbulent early 1900s in Europe, placed great emphasis on gathering the laity to help with evangelization.
Father Kaz said healthcare professionals, for instance, have opportunities to interact with people in ways that clergy cannot.
"We have something more than just 12 disciples," Fr. Kaz told the conference attendees. "We have here 140 people. Do you know what that means? You can multiply the good. You can have an effect on a couple dozen people each day, a few thousand a year. You are the ones who truly are seeds of grace, powerful seeds of change, of healing and strength, because when we bring God (into our work), we are all powerful. He is there for us."
Learn more about Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy. You can also order Nurse Marie's book Nursing with the Hands of Jesus: A Guide to Nurses for Divine Mercy (Marian Press), written with Frs. Kaz and Seraphim.