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Photo: Marie Romagnano

Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR, delivers the keynote address on Tuesday morning, speaking on "Divine Mercy and the New Positive Psychology: Psychology Takes a New Direction."

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Photo: Marie Romagnano

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Father Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, was scheduled to speak both days. Because of illness, a video of a previous talk of his was shown.

Photo: Marie Romagnano

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Among the speakers was bioethicist Fr. Germain Kopaczynski, OFM Conv.

Photo: Marie Romagnano

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"The hospital is a church, a place to go when our bodies need assistance. It is a place where we confront the large questions of life," said Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC.

Photo: Marie Romagnano

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Helen Jackson, MD, director of the St. Luke's Guild, the Catholic physicians guild in Boston, takes the stage for her talk.

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"Medicine, Bioethics, and Spirituality" attracted a capacity crowd of 300-plus to the 5th Annual Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy conference.

By Dan Valenti (May 1, 2009)
The body breaks. The spirit flies.

Dual images of human vulnerability and providential power dominated the 5th Annual Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy conference April 28-29 at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Frailty: Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, world-renowned for his TV show, mercurially hobbling to the stage assisted by a young Franciscan built like a linebacker for the New England Patriots. The steps were probably as painful as they were laborious for the wizened elder of Catholicism's electronic village, who has been battling a recent stroke, the aftereffects of a horrific car accident, and our ally, old age, who comes eventually to all of us.

An Important Subject
"I can't believe he took the time to come from New York City to speak with us, considering what he's dealing with," said Nurse Marie Romagnano, RN, founder and director of Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy. "That's how important this subject is to him."

The subject Nurse Marie referred to was "Medicine, Bioethics, and Spirituality." It attracted a capacity crowd of 300-plus to the lovely Holy Cross campus. Doctors, nurses, therapists, and all manner of allied healthcare workers attended — Christians, Catholics, and Jews.

[To get behind the scenes at the Healthcare Professionals Conference, go to "Dan Valenti's Journal." Dan empties out his notebook, bringing you up to speed on some of the other speakers, events, activities, and exchanges that took place.]

Father Benedict delivered the keynote address on Tuesday morning, speaking on "Divine Mercy and the New Positive Psychology: Psychology Takes a New Direction." He delivered his talk within a zeitgeist.

Riffing with Benny
Flight: The contrast between the frail, old man who approached the stage and the energetic, animated one that spoke. As Fr. Benedict sat in a chair behind the microphone, he instantly morphed. He began with a disclaimer that aphasia might cause him to blank out and not find the words, but when he began to talk, he started riffing words as good as John Coltrane weaved notes on a sax. The audience riffed with him.

It produced a zeitgeist: the tone, mood, or defining spirit of a specific, fixed point of time. Father Benedict spoke for almost an hour without consulting his notes. He spoke in a self-created atmosphere of spontaneity and love. The air was thick with that love from both sides of the stage, and goodness hung in the air like cigarette smoke in a packed, after-hours jazz club.

The 'Psychology of Virtue'
Father Benedict, who has a doctorate in psychology, spoke of the evolution in that science's conceptualization of "the person," from the anti-value, anti-spiritual approach of Freud to the "personal growth" model of Carl Rogers to the recent work of Dr. Martin Seligman, who held that the understanding of the human person must be grounded in a morality-based "psychology of virtue."

Father Benedict then blasted Catholics for not coming out more forcefully for supporting Seligman's work. Seligman is chairman of the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center.

"Catholics were terrified — terrified — of actually being Catholic," he said to laughter. As Freud said, there's no such thing as a joke. "The focus on virtue opens a whole new door [into] human psychology."

Father Benedict clearly enjoyed giving his talk. He cracked jokes, smiled, and sometimes boomed so loud that he sounded like Boanerges, son of thunder, son of Zebedee. He called Jesus the world's Teacher, "a man who never had a formal education, an itinerant preacher." The founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal then connected to dots from a virtue-based psychology to a psychology unafraid to include spirituality. The audience ate it up.

After his speech, the linebacking Franciscan helped Fr. Benedict from the stage. The flight landed, and frailty got off the plane.

Rising to the Occasion
Dr. Bryan Thatcher, M.D., international director for Doctors for Divine Mercy and founder/director of Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy, gave a performance almost equal to Fr. Benedict's in determination. Wheezing and coughing from bronchitis, Bryan — who spoke both days of the conference — made the disclaimer that he might not be up to the task.

He was up to the task.

Bryan courageously battled his way through both days. He did so with his usual friendly, soft-spoken, humble manner. There's nothing worse than a speaker in a Power Point presentation who does nothing more than read from his slides. Bryan Thatcher read from his heart.

He urged his audience to let God's mercy transform their lives.

"You can't give something to patients that you don't have yourself," he said. "Walk by faith and not by sight. You transform the world one patient at a time, letting God's love radiate out through you."

Becoming Better People
Bryan spoke of the expanded role of healthcare providers. They are people who use their training and skills to diagnose and treat illness, but the job doesn't stop there. They help patients "become better people" — better spouses, parents, children, friends — through physical and spiritual healing.

The merciful side might be nothing more than a smile, filling a glass of water, wiping a fevered brow, or stopping to talk and listen.

He wove stories from his own days as a practicing physician, including the tale of a patient, a man who worked for a hardware chain. As the man's doctor, Bryan saw him a couple times a year for checkups. He never noticed or learned the man had a severe drinking problem. He never read the signs. He never asked. He never listened. This was before Divine Mercy transformed Bryan's own life.

"There is so much suffering going on that we don't know about," Bryan said. Every contact with a patient can be an opportunity to ease that person's suffering. "Reach out compassionately to people, whether it's getting a patient history, changing a bed, drawing blood, hanging antibiotics. Do small things with love."

Daybreak Gilds the Flowers
A third example of human frailty came with Nurse Marie's daily updates on the condition of Fr. Seraphim Michalenko, MIC, director of the Association of Marian Helpers who was scheduled to speak both days. Father Seraphim was at that moment in a bed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and a heart problem.

On both days, 300 people joined in prayer for Fr. Seraphim, a song recited together, yielding the joy of healing and the gifts of God. Love took two kindred forms: the very flame of mercy that flew around the heart of Jesus and the fiery wings of 300-plus souls uniting to give a boost to a hurting, beloved priest.

That moment, on both days, felt like daybreak. It felt like the first rays of the sun, gilding the tops of a field of spring flowers.

'Love Overcomes'
"Every year we gather for this conference," said Fr. Kazimierz Chwalek, MIC, director of Evangelization and Development for the Congregation of Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and one of the speakers. "It's amazing to see the effect it has on people, to see how they embrace the spirit of God's mercy. They feel happiness, that God is able to do His extraordinary work through them. They feel how His love overcomes our human emotions and frailties. They then carry that into their work."

Other speakers included Nurse Marie; Bioethicist Fr. Germain Kopaczynski, OFM Conv. (both days); Sr. Teresa Dela Fuente, OLM; and Dr. Helen Jackson, M.D. On Wednesday, a panel discussion took written questions from the audience.

The conference began with Holy Mass Tuesday morning in St. Joseph's Chapel on campus, with Most Rev. Robert McManus, Bishop of Worcester, as main celebrant. Brother Michael Opalacz, MIC, served as Bishop McManus' acolyte at the Mass. A 6 p.m. closing Mass, also in St. Joseph's Chapel, brought the conference to an end.

Human frailty and divine power — with the first as context, the second was all the more able to intervene.

Dan Valenti writes for numerous publications of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, both in print and online. He is the author of Dan Valenti's Mercy Journal.

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