‘Heal the Wounds’: Best practices for the church as field hospital

‘I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds.” What a stunning image Pope Francis has given us in this statement, which appeared in the interview he gave to Jesuit journals last September (Am. 9/30/13). Of course, there are other traditional images of the church, but the image of a field hospital is certainly a stellar one for those of us who live and work in the church at the present time. Wounded people abound, and the battle seems endless.

In order to make this image a reality, however, all of us who are members of the church will need a major change in attitude. As Pope Francis insists, “The first reform must be the attitude.” We must adjust our focus and begin to put into practice the habits that are essential for working in a field hospital. All who have accepted an official role of ministry—bishops, priests and deacons, religious sisters and brothers and lay leaders—must lead the way. But every member of the Christian community will need to step forward and take up the task. Otherwise the staff of the field hospital will be much too small for a task that is much too great.

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Of primary importance is our need to keep in touch with the Chief Physician. The Chief Physician is in charge and we work for him. Without a deep relationship with our Triune God, we cannot hope to accomplish any healing. Like Mary of Bethany, we must spend time “at his feet.” Here we learn that nothing is possible without God’s grace and strength. Francis reminds us that “God is found in the gentle breeze perceived by Elijah” and “a contemplative attitude is necessary.” In the quiet of our prayer, we are able to discern the right path. Francis assures us, “Profound peace, spiritual consolation, love of God and love of all things in God—this is the sign that you are on this right path.” And Augustine said our souls are restless until they rest in God. Without the practice of deep and quiet prayer, the burnout in a field hospital will be severe.

We also know that we cannot be effective ministers to the wounded until we come to recognize our own wounds. We are often numb to our own suffering. We learn to sweep our pain under the carpet and pretend that it does not exist. If we really wish to help to heal others’ wounds, we must accept the fact that we too are deeply wounded. We must face the pain and suffering in our own lives if we wish to be compassionate to others. After all, compassion means “to suffer with.” The Rev. Henri Nouwen reminds us that we are all “wounded healers,” working side by side in the human condition.

When we work in a field hospital, we cannot be afraid of the dark. Human nature does not like messiness! We like things to be clean and orderly. We would rather deal with people who “have their act together.” We tend to shy away from people who are hurting. But wounds are rarely clean; they are bloody and raw. Darkness abounds. But Pope Francis tells us, “The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.” The work is not for the faint-hearted.

Next, we must face the reality that the church is a field hospital. Field hospitals are usually tents set up near the battlefield. Risks are all around. They have none of the fancy resources and equipment found in hospitals in urban centers. Long, unscheduled hours and noise are everywhere. In this situation, the staff must rely on one another. They quickly develop a sense of equality, cooperation and teamwork. Sometimes procedures necessary for saving the patient take precedence over regulations. As positions change in a particular battle, field hospitals have to be ready to move at a moment’s notice. Creative solutions and maximum flexibility are the name of the game. So too with the church.

This requires a major change in attitude. We must be agile and flexible, ready to move as the battle situation demands. We must deal with the limited resources at hand. We need open communication and a sense of trust that all the members of the team can do their jobs well. We must resist the temptation to build permanent structures. We must recognize that we do not have all the answers. We still seek God. Here Francis refers to St. Augustine: “Seek God to find him, and find God to keep searching for God forever.” But the pope also assures us that “God is to be encountered in the world of today.” Thus bishops, for example, “must be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”

We must also work to see that our field hospital is a place filled with hope. But we must be very clear about the meaning of hope. Christian hope is not a kind of shallow, Pollyannish approach to life. We need to offer the wounded a deep hope based on our own knowledge of the past and our firm faith in the future. We sing the old hymn, “O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come.” We share a deep conviction in the providential care of God, and we affirm the insight of Blessed Juliana of Norwich that in God’s mysterious way, “All shall be well and all shall be well.” But this practice of the virtue of hope is a challenge for the Christian community. It is easy to lose hope in the midst of such pain. Yet we cling to the advice of Seraphim of Sarov: “Have peace in your hearts and thousands around you will be saved.”

Quite often in our field hospital, we have no choice but to imitate the friends of Job, as they appear in the prologue of that amazing book in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Then they sat down upon the ground with him, seven days and seven nights, but none of them spoke a word to him, for they saw how great was his suffering” (Job 2:13). Why are we so afraid of silence? Why do we insist in filling the silence with often meaningless chatter? In so many cases, the only thing that can be done to alleviate suffering is to be with a person, to hold a hand or wipe a brow. In our strong—and often fruitless—desire to do something, we forget that healing often comes in the gentle and compassionate silence of human companionship. Dag Hammarskjöld reminds us, “Friendship needs no words, it is solitude delivered from the anguish of loneliness.”

Finally, as we work in our field hospital, we must be convinced that the ultimate source of healing is the Eucharist. When we gather around the table of the Lord, we bring with us all of our pain and suffering. But in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, our lives are transformed. Each time we come to this table, we enter into the sufferings of Christ and come to know more deeply the salvation that can only come from our good and gracious God. This is the “balm of Gilead that makes the wounded whole.” New strength is gained from the support of the community and, fed with the bread of life, we can, with Elijah, “walk 40 days and 40 nights to the mountain of God” (1 Kgs 19:8). When all else fails and every possible human effort has been made to alleviate suffering, we come face to face with the mystery of redemptive suffering. By finally imitating Christ in embracing the heavy cross of the human condition, we experience resurrection with its new peace and freedom. Only then can we sing with the ancients: O crux, ave, spes unica—“Hail, O cross, our only hope!”

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3 years 9 months ago
I'm pleased to comment and perhaps be the first to compliment my old roommate from seminary. Joe has lost none of his ability to wrap up tons of thoughts and package them in a kind of brief tour de force of evangelical and spiritual wisdom. I would add, " And hearing this, Jesus said to them, 'It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.' " ( Mark 2:17) I've lived by this word of Jesus and am revived in spirit to hear Pope Francis echo it in his.
Mike Evans
3 years 9 months ago
Exactly. Every parish should be a MASH unit. Our retired bishop always described the church as "a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints." Let us heal and not condemn.
David Pasinski
3 years 9 months ago
Well said, Joe! Articulate, challenging, sensitive,and hope-filled. Many of us have images of field hospitals nationally and loased on "MASH," whihch may or not be apt with the humor and pathos of that great show and characters. Yet, in my opinion, reports from our nation and episcopal leadership throughout the world, are not encouraging regarding this message reaching the middle leadership and junior grade officers. We all know the tales of terror of continued exclusion, privilege, and authoritarian leadership. As you mentioned, to have a field hosptial work, it has to beginby ACCEPTING the wounded...We have a long way to go based on recent leadership decisons. Ora pro nobis...
Robert Killoren
3 years 9 months ago
Excellent article. I found myself practically shouting YES aloud as I read your points. This all suggests that we must be where the hurting people are, both on the front lines but also in the margins where some of the most suffering are. Pope Francis certainly is doing this himself.

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