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The Church On The Medical Front Lines

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I once read a fascinating book about the leper colony on Molokai. The Molokai lepers were literally cast out of society, sent as far away as possible, with almost no support systems.  There was no health care for them, no houses beyond rudimentary shelter, no way to readily obtain clothing, school books for children…it was a frightful and frightening situation. A brave and gentle priest, Fr. Damien de Veuster from Belgium, accepted the assignment to go to Molokai and serve the 600 lepers there.

He arrived to chaos. Those suffering from leprosy were living in a lawless society. They fought over food, areas of land – it was survival of the fittest. In the 16 years that Damien lived on Molokai, he built a church, helped the people build houses that truly were homes, constructed needed buildings and roadways in the mountainous region, taught farming to the residents, and provided education. His greatest gift, however, was spiritual.

He restored faith in his battered and neglected flock. He showed them that despite what the outside world told them, they were precious in the eyes of God. He taught them to believe in God and showed them that by his genuine acts of charity that what there was purpose in their lives. He restored personal pride and dignity among so many who had given up hope.

Currently, it is Ebola that is striking fear in the hearts of many. In today’s world, Ebola is far more contagious than leprosy, and although both are treatable, the cures for Ebola are in their early stages. (Keep in mind as well that leprosy is bacterial in nature, and Ebola viral. Viruses, because of their ability to mutate quickly, are by nature harder to treat.) The World Health Organization has declared Ebola “an international emergency.”

Like Damien of Molokai, the Church is “boots on the ground” is places ravaged by the Ebola virus.

The Catholic Church manages health facilities, and so it will be able to care for Ebola-affected people whenever the structures have the capacity to keep the infected people in isolation,” Msgr. Robert Vitillo told CNA.

Msgr. Vitillo is special adviser to the Rome-based Catholic relief organization confederation Caritas Internationalis on HIV/AIDS. He also heads Caritas’ delegation to the United Nations in Geneva and collaborates with the Holy See.

Again, like Damien of Molokai, the care from Catholic health organizations focuses not only on health, but on pastoral care. According to Msgr. Vitillo,

…the Catholic Church “supports people in their suffering, showing that there is a God accompanying us in our sufferings and that the Church has a special way of commemorating the dead people: that Jesus has given his life for us; he went beyond death for us, and so there is hope.”

This kind of pastoral education is important because it helps to avoid local customs involving the burial of the dead. These traditions include a vigil and touching the corpse of the deceased, a very dangerous practice when seeking to curtail infectious disease.

Dr. Kent Brantly, a Samaritan’s Purse missionary recently returned from Liberia, having been diagnosed with Ebola. He, too, spoke of the great need for pastoral care of those suffering:

You’ve seen the news reports, and I can assure you, the reality on the ground in West Africa is worse than the worst report you’ve seen. And our attention and our efforts need to be on loving the people there,” he said.

Health care cannot be focused on simply eradicating a virus from a person’s body. A person is not simply a body, a sum of parts, but a being both spiritual and corporeal. We must remember this as we look to treat Ebola victims, their families and those who care for them.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.

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