CONSCIENCE CONVERSATION: Serving in the “field hospital” with prayer and quiet service

Brendan: I’m writing this on March 28th. I feel the need to say that to contextualize this Conscience Conversation—every day it seems like the COVID-19 crisis is evolving in rapid, new, and terrifying ways. For a reader perusing this at a future date, I wonder how hopelessly out-of-date this conversation might seem. So, here we are on March 28th—more than half one million people around the world are now sick. Thousands have died. And all of us are now huddling at home with our loved ones, praying and waiting out the storm.

There’s so much we could talk about when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic and its relevance for our lives as Catholic citizens. Catholic social teaching, to me, has never felt so relevant. We are called to act in solidarity with the most vulnerable in all things and in all our public policy choices. There’s no greater expression of that principle of solidarity than to barricade ourselves in our homes to ensure others don’t get sick, especially those who are most likely to die from this terrible disease. “Social distancing”—a secular word with such a rich well of catholicity underneath it.

Pope Francis’ pastoral graces always bring comfort in these moments of difficulty. He has an incredible power to use words that produce vivid imagery and help us positively reimagine our role as a Church and as a People of God in the world. In an interview he once described the Church as a field hospital, and the metaphor seems so apt in this moment—a moment of crisis when Christians are most especially called to love and serve others:

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. 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…. And you have to start from the ground up.

Pope Francis has brought this need for nearness and proximity to life in this crisis. A beautiful blessing in this moment has been the fact that Pope Francis is now livestreaming his Santa Marta chapel daily masses in Vatican City. What was once the privilege of a small few—to celebrate Mass daily with the Pope—is now open to the whole world. Then of course there was the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing, the text of which is an extraordinary call to courage and radical love. And so, in a new and special way, the global Catholic community is together: we are praying together, celebrating Mass together online, creating a oneness in our shared COVID-19 trial. Many of us are also living out our Catholic call to service, each bearing their own cross, many at the cost of their lives—the penultimate Christian witness of Father Giuseppe Berardelli comes to mind, the Italian priest who died from COVID-19 after giving up a ventilator so a younger patient could live. This crisis is in a sense a Lenten observance, one every person on Earth must face. In mid-March the Holy Father called upon the world to pray a rosary together—a shared petition to God to help us in this crisis. The beauty of praying that rosary—a and imagining the many hundreds of thousands of Catholics around the world who prayed it also—was such a comfort in these dark times.

Our faith calls us to action right now. We cannot back away. We need to be the “field hospital” more than ever, when the horde of sick and wounded—literal and spiritual—in the world will grow by so much. So every Catholic must ask: how can I serve in the field hospital?

Matt, how do you think we can serve as the “field hospital” of the COVID-19 crisis here in Canada? How do Catholic citizens step up to serve and support our neighbours in this difficult time and at all times, as our faith calls us to do?

Great point, great quote, great questions, Brendan.  As Cardinal Collins mentioned in his streamed homily on that same March 26, one of the primary effects of the intrusion of real emergencies, like wars, pandemics, and famines into life, is the forced seclusion of large numbers of people along with other radical changes in the rhythms and patterns of our contemporary North American life. This seclusion brings with it the opportunity for reflection:  God has ways of inviting us to step back and reflect on what really matters in this life: The search for that truth which is God, through acceptance and love of neighbor and respect for all God’s laws.

A central tenet of Catholic Conscience is that all Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to do whatever we can in the service of those around us who are in need.  In the current crisis, there are many things Canadians can do—and many of them are not mutually exclusive.  This means that each of us can and should be looking frankly at our own circumstances, to discern what sorts of responses we can fairly offer in order to respond appropriately to the great need that has grown around us. We need to be active in many different ways.

Among my favorite of Pope Francis’s many inspiring thoughts is that while each of us can, should, and indeed must do what we can to influence social responses at all social levels. It is of first importance that each Christian reach out on a personal level to other human beings around us: to work closely enough with our fellows that we begin to take on their very smell.

Now, a disease like COVID-19 is an extremely dangerous thing.  It is important that each of us start by familiarizing ourselves with the disease and responsible steps that we can take to protect ourselves from it. While the Church stresses that others are every bit as important as we are ourselves, we cannot help them if we ourselves become sick.  Worse, in this case social resources currently available for fighting the disease extremely limited: our first duty is to take reasonable steps to avoid becoming sick, so that we do not divert resources or energy away from others who may have greater need—including healthcare and emergency workers.

Once we’ve armed ourselves with the knowledge to respond responsibly, however, we need to bear in mind the parable of the talents and its lesson:  keeping ourselves save and snug and our own hideaways, enjoying our favorite treats, while others outside suffer, is equivalent to burying the master’s coins in the yard rather than investing them. We need to look at ways we can respond:

  • Personally, to the homebound and to others in need.  Are there ways we can check responsibly on those who may physically or emotionally live near us, to ensure they have the food, medicine, and human relationship they need?
  • Spiritually, to all those we can reach.  A number of new social media efforts have sprung up, to enable neighbors to encourage one another not only with kind words, but with joint prayer.  Many daily masses are being offered online. Attend with devotion, and by availing ourselves of opportunities for Spiritual Communion like those taught by St Alphonsus Liguori. These can be of extraordinary help, and arm us spiritually for the work ahead.
  • Institutionally, by investigating opportunities to volunteer with responsible service organizations, such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul.  What sorts of help are they offering and how can we contribute?  With our hands?  With emergency donations?  Can we help such organizations adapt through the contribution of new ideas?

And we cannot lose sight of the many lessons to be learned from this emergency.  Once the immediate needs of those around us have been satisfied, what remains to be done?  The pandemic has cast light on a number of shortcomings in our current socio-economic models.  We have been given an extraordinary opportunity to step back and re-assess many of the ways our society works:

  • Are our economies sufficiently independent?  In our race to maximize opportunities for consumption, we have driven prices to the absolute lowest values they can reach, regardless of consequences for the stability and dignity of work, the security of national populations, and basic issues of fairness?  This suggests that we need to look more closely at putting the principle of subsidiarity to work in new and more appropriate ways.
  • Are our medical and social services networks adequate to the needs we expect them to meet?  Do our economies support production and just distribution of medicines to those most in need?
  • Have we maintained a proper perspective on the importance of the economy, vis-à-vis the life and dignity of human beings?  Are we looking to certain disadvantaged segments of society to bear an undue proportion of the effects of this disease, as well as our own material desires?  Are we placing our own desire for wealth and uninterrupted consumption before the life, safety, and health of our neighbors?

The COVID-19 conversation has both immediate and long-term aspects, each of equal importance.  We must address them all, and not lose sight or sink at any time into complacency, even when we ourselves are safe and comfortable with the status quo.

Brendan: Matt, in the spirit of “working closely with our fellow sheep”, I think I’d like to conclude this Conscience Conversation by highlighting some of the creative ways community groups, parishes and others have responded to this challenge to serve our most vulnerable neighbours and those most affected by the crisis. I hope some of these inspire readers to consider the ways they are called to serve in this moment.

  • Here in Toronto, the University Health Network’s OpenLab is partnering with Toronto Community Housing Corporation to support seniors living in community housing. Many are afraid to go grocery shopping or pick up medication at the pharmacy, for fear of catching the virus—a virus that is more threatening to their lives than other group. This is a group of people who already live with difficulty and economic anxiety under regular circumstances—you can imagine how much more difficult the circumstances have become. UHN OpenLab and TCHC have together started the Friendly Neighbor Hotline–ordinary Torontonians helping vulnerable seniors with simple things like getting groceries, so the latter can stay home and stay safe. Toronto readers can sign up to volunteer by clicking here.
  • Local Society of St. Vincent de Paul conferences continue to serve vulnerable people creatively. In lieu of their usual home visits, many are mailing food vouchers and other supports to those they work with. Consider a donation to the Society’s Greater Toronto Central Council to support their efforts in this time—click here.
  • The Archdiocese of Toronto has shared a list with some of the many creative ways parishes continue to minister spiritually to their congregations. You can read it by clicking here. For instance, one parish is hosting “drive-through confessions” with priests social distancing from cars on sidewalks, and the Newman Centre at University of Toronto is continuing their rosary, bible study, and prayer groups using video conferencing.

This is a time for ordinary heroes, as Pope Francis put it so eloquently in a speech prior to his unprecedented Urbi et Orbi blessing on March 27:

“We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives. This is the force of the Spirit poured out and fashioned in courageous and generous self-denial. It is the life in the Spirit that can redeem, value and demonstrate how our lives are woven together and sustained by ordinary people – often forgotten people – who do not appear in newspaper and magazine headlines nor on the grand catwalks of the latest show, but who without any doubt are in these very days writing the decisive events of our time: doctors, nurses, supermarket employees, cleaners, caregivers, providers of transport, law and order forces, volunteers, priests, religious men and women and so very many others who have understood that no one reaches salvation by themselves. In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: ‘That they may all be one’ (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons.”

Prayer and quiet service—these are our weapons too, and it’s up to all of us to wield them in the way we are called to help.

Twice a month, Matthew Marquardt and Brendan Steven get together over breakfast (virtually, in the time of COVID-19!) and talk about what it means to be a Christian citizen. These are their Conscience Conversations. Want to join the conversation? Want to learn more about Catholic social teaching, and how you can serve your community as an active Christian citizen? Reach out to us: email

Matthew Marquardt is President of Catholic Conscience, of counsel to a Toronto law firm, a parishioner at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, as well as a lay associate of the Redemptorists.

Brendan Steven is Executive Director of Catholic Conscience, a writer based in Toronto, active with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other Catholic and civic institutions, and a parishioner at St. Basil’s Catholic Church.

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