Church as field hospital in a time of COVID-19

Blake Sittler is the Executive Director of CHAS -- the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan. (Submitted photo)

By Blake Sittler, Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan

In my work for the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan, I had several priorities a few weeks ago: we are revising our Witness To Mission Formation Program, putting together a committee to spearhead a visiting campaign and we potentially have our annual convention taking place in October 2020.

But that was days ago – before COVID.

Since this pandemic has taken root in the province and North America, every one of us in our work and families have had to reprioritize and reschedule our lives. This reaction is legitimate and it has lead me to reflect on Pope Francis’ analogy of the Church as field hospital.

But it also inspired a reflection on Scarlett O’Hara.

Scarlett O’Hara, the larger-than-life lead of Margaret Mitchell’s epic, Gone With the Wind, needed to find a doctor to help in the birth of her sister-in-law’s baby.  No doctors were available though, because the battle of Atlanta was happening only a few miles away, and anyone with medical training was busy in the field hospital.

Scarlett knew she had to get ahold of the local doctor, but she was terrified of the fighting where the field hospital was located. She heard the cries of her sister-in-law in labour though, and she was fortified. Filled with fear and desperation, she went to fetch the doctor.

When the intrepid Scarlett arrived, she searched out her family doctor but she had to watch where she stepped because “lying in the pitiless sun, shoulder to shoulder, head to feet, were hundreds of wounded men, lining the tracks, the sidewalks, stretched out in endless rows.”

Scarlett had seen wounded men, many of them her neighbours, before, but never like this: “This was an inferno of pain and smell and noise and hurry—hurry—hurry!”

When Pope Francis described the Church as a field hospital, this is the image he had in mind: a world filled with hands reaching up croaking, “Water! Help me! Please!”

This is not an image of finely-tuned bureaucracy, but one of all hands on deck.  This is not washing your hands for 20 seconds while humming “Happy Birthday” but one of wiping the mud and blood off of your hands onto your pants and moving to the next person in need.  (Though do please keep washing your hands!)

Pope Francis is unflinching in his description, “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.”

Fr. Osita Asogwa, a lecturer in philosophy at Bigard Memorial Seminary, once said that the pope’s vision of a field hospital must focus on “pastoral care in concrete situations.”

With the rise of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, we as the Church are being called to a variety of concrete situations. It is not a gentle whisper in our ear during quiet prayer. It is a bombshell going off in the not-too-distant distance. Every institution that exists is being put to the test – be it health, political, financial and even the institution of the family. All are under pressure and our Catholic faith impels us to respond.

Now we are being called and the call will grow louder over the upcoming days, weeks and months.  There will be much need as systems start to reach their maximum capacity. We will all be called to respond in different ways but what we need to do as people of faith is to brace for it by preparing ourselves through prayer and by nurturing a flexible spirit.

The gift of the Church to this crisis is being Church—being a mass of people who have something to offer those in need. Mother Teresa was called to the poor of Calcutta. Fr. Damien was called to care for the lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molaka’i, where he dressed ulcers, made coffins, dug graves, lived, ate and drank with them and eventually succumbed to their shared disease. In the Catholic long-term care homes and hospitals in Saskatchewan, hundreds of dedicated people continue to go into work to care for our grandparents and spouses and children. They leave their family to take care of our family.

Most of us have no idea yet where we will be called. The personal gifts that we feel we have may not be the gifts that are needed. But the call will come and most likely it will come from a place we are afraid to go. Our faith though is that the One who calls us is there in the chaos and, like hearing the call of our own child labouring in the darkness of the birth canal, we cannot resist but go.

Please continue to pray for and support the men and women who are working so hard in our long-term care home and hospitals throughout the province and country.