The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 8, 2000 Issue
Bishop Banks' Corner

Bishop Robert J. Banks
Bishop Robert J. Banks

Belief affects view of death, illness

The Gospel sheds light on our own suffering and care of ill and dying

By Bishop Robert Banks

Hospitals have been on my mind the past couple of weeks.

One of the reasons, perhaps the one most on my mind, was my own visit to one of our Catholic hospitals for a thallium stress test. (No need to be alarmed. The doctors thought it might be a good idea to celebrate the tenth anniversary of my by-pass operation by seeing if the Boston doctors did a good job. It seems they did.)

The good thing about a bishop's visit to a hospital is that it reminds him of what the patient and the staff go through every day. Since I was told to show up for the test in comfortable clothes, I did not wear my usual black suit and Roman collar. That meant that for the staff, apart from a few of the office employees who recognized me, I was simply Joe Q. Patient.

I went prepared, however, carrying a thick theological magazine, since I knew most of my time there would probably be spent waiting. Most of the population of Green Bay had apparently made an appointment for an X-ray that day, so I was lucky to have to wait only a half-hour before being ushered into the appropriate test room.

The very pleasant nurse practitioner checked if I wanted to be called "Robert" or "Bob," as she filled out the necessary forms. We then learned someone else needed the room more than we did, so we moved across the hall. After another wait, the attending doctor showed up to monitor my performance. He looked young enough to have graduated from high school this past June, but his nametag said he was a doctor.

After a brief workout on the treadmill, it was back to the first room for a 40 minute spell in a thallium detector machine that looked every bit of the hundreds of thousands of dollars it must have cost. And the hospital must have at least three of them, plus the trained staff to use them. It's easy to see why health care is expensive.

Which takes me to another reason why hospitals have been on my mind. A short time ago, I had the privilege of blessing the new Mercy Medical Center in Oshkosh. Sponsored by the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother, working together with the Springfield Franciscan Sisters as partners in the Affinity Healthcare System, it is a beautiful, modern facility for which the Oshkosh community must be very grateful.

In my brief visit, I was impressed by the striking religious art and signage in the public areas of he hospital. Particularly impressive were the brief psalm verses on the walls of the corridors. Their messages should be so uplifting both for patients and staff.

And that brings me to the final reason why hospitals have been on my mind. Two weeks ago, we held our annual meeting of the leadership of the Catholic hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities in our Diocese. Thanks principally to women religious, northeast Wisconsin is blessed with a number of excellent Catholic health care facilities. These annual meetings give the leadership a chance to talk about some of their common challenges.

As you might imagine, critical issues of personnel, finances and competition naturally take up some of the time, but the major issue which the Catholic Health Association suggested for discussion was End of Life care.

Without going into details, the main presentation focussed on the importance of pain management and what I would summarize as TLC -- tender loving care. It seems clear that it will be easier for loved ones to give tender loving care if a person has expressed, before a crisis, his or her wishes about the kind of medical treatment to be given.

At the end of a rather technical discussion, the bishop had a chance to add his brief comments. I called attention to what our faith offers as we confront End of Life issues: hope and the value of suffering.

If a person has no belief that there is life after death, only nothingness, then that person's approach to death may be quite different than the believer's. Our faith tells the believer that, with death, life is not ended, but changed. This hope of a better life after death can be a white-knuckled hope that we hold onto with difficulty, as did St. Therese of Lisieux. But it is hope and it can lift the spirit.

The Gospel also offers us the important truth that there is value in suffering. And no matter how effective the drugs might be that manage pain, there usually is suffering as we approach the End of Life. It might be the weakness that keeps us confined to bed, the loneliness that goes with serious sickness, or the thought of those who will be left behind.

The Gospel tells us that Jesus experienced the suffering of the Cross. Nails confined him to the wood; his followers fled; he had to leave his mother in the care of a friend. Yet it was through this suffering and death that salvation was won for the world. We Christians are invited to join our suffering to that of Jesus for the salvation of the world. So we never need be alone in our suffering; it is always with the Jesus who loves us in and beyond death.

For many modern Americans, these truths might seem old-fashioned, even unreal, or what is worse, impractical. From what I have seen and experienced, they do work for the person who believes.

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