Last month I received a phone call from my sister that my dad who is 85 was in the hospital with a serious, possibly life-threatening illness. I dropped what I was doing, booked a seat on the next flight out of Juneau, and headed south to be with my father and to help my mom in any way I could. I’m glad to report that after three days in the hospital, he was able to return home and that he is slowly but surely getting better.
I’m deeply grateful to all those in my parish and in the diocese who so generously prayed for him while he was in the hospital. I’m grateful for the doctors and nurses who so ably cared for him. And I’m thankful to God who granted my father and our family the continuation of the gift of life together.
During those hours at the hospital, I could not help but notice how many of the doctors, nurses and other medical and housekeeping staff, were from overseas. My dad’s nurse during the day shift had immigrated to the United States from Cebu in the Philippines. We had a chance to visit a little and it turned out that she and her husband had once traveled to Juneau and had attended Sunday mass at the Cathedral.
Talking to her reminded me that despite the fact that countries like the Philippines and India produce excellent doctors and nurses, in their countries of origin as is the case in most of the developing world, little or none of the healthcare that we take for granted in our own country is available to the poor majority, or if available, is unaffordable.
Living in the developed world my father was fortunate to have access to doctors and nurses with sophisticated tests and an up-to-date laboratory to diagnose his illness. They discovered in time that my father had a dangerous infection which was treated with two doses of powerful IV antibiotics. In those parts of the world where such care is either unaffordable or unavailable, he would most likely have died.
But in many parts of the developing world, treatment in a hospital is an unattainable dream. For the poor majority of our world, even the most primary health care is unavailable or inaccessible, which results in excessive rates of mortality from preventable causes, especially among children and expectant mothers. I’m grateful for the many charitable private and public initiatives to provide preventative healthcare and medical treatment to those in the poorest parts of the world who are in dire need. For example, the Gates Foundation has made malaria eradication, through the widespread distribution of mosquito netting, mosquito eradication and funding research for a malaria vaccine, a top priority of its philanthropic efforts.
I’m particularly thankful for the lives that have been made better because of the innovative healthcare projects of Catholic Relief Services, (the US branch of Caritas Internationalis, the worldwide relief and development agency of the universal Church), in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. All of us as Christians should support the work of charity out of love of Christ and our neighbor. As Pope Benedict taught in his encyclical, God is Love (Deus Caritas Est): “ … love for widows and orphans, prisoners and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to [the Church’s mission] as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.”
But I’m reminded too, that the equitable provision of adequate nutrition, safe drinking water and medical treatment to those in poverty, is not fundamentally a matter of charity but of justice. In the words of the Church Father, St. Gregory the Great, quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §2446:
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
In that same section, the Catechism also quotes St. John Chrysostom, who wrote:
“Not to enable to the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”
Living, as we do, in the most affluent society in human history, the choices that we make as a nation have far-reaching consequences for our impoverished neighbors around the world. It is a scandal that this year our country will spend $770 billion on armaments and war while millions of our brothers and sisters around the world lack even the basic necessities of life. It is simply wrong that our government allocates only a tiny fraction of its budget to overseas relief and development aid while spending over 4% of the entire gross domestic product on the military.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, that during the recent national election campaign neither of the candidates ever spoke about the urgent needs of the hundreds of millions of impoverished men, women and children beyond our borders. Neither candidate ever mentioned the appalling fact that 9 million people, mostly children, die each year from hunger and malnutrition. Neither seriously questioned the trillions of dollars spent by our nation on war and armaments.
However, I’m grateful that fifty years ago the bishops assembled for the Second Vatican Council addressed these words to the developed nations of the world:
As long as extravagant sums of money are poured into the development of new weapons, it is impossible to devote adequate aid in tackling the misery which prevails in the present day in the world. (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World no. 81).
I’m grateful too, that in that same declaration, they challenged us, as the disciples of Jesus, to do our part to create a more just and equitable world.
… the greater part of the world is in such poverty that it is as if Christ himself were crying out in the mouths of all these poor people to the charity of his disciples. Let us not be guilty of the scandal of having some nations, most of whose citizens bear the name of Christians, enjoying an abundance of riches, while others lack the necessities of life and are tortured by hunger, disease, and all kinds of misery. (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World no.88)
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau.
Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23