Part I: A Brief History of Being Ministers of Body & Soul

By Sydney Michelle Therese March, BLA-Th, RN, BSN, PHN, MSB


In the month of February, we have many opportunities to use the examples that Holy Mother Church gives us as beautiful models for living out the Faith and our vocation as healthcare professionals well: St. Brigid of Ireland (Feb. 1st) is the patron saint of healers; St. Agatha of Sicily (Feb 5th) is a patron saint of nurses; St. Amand of Maastricht (Feb. 6th) is a patron saint of pharmacists; St. Dorothy of Caesarea (Feb. 5th) and St. Margaret of Cortona (Feb. 22nd) are patron saints of midwives; and perhaps the most perfect example: Our Lady of Lourdes (Feb. 11), the Patroness of those who are sick.

In light of the arrival of the World Day of the Sick, which was instituted by Pope St. John Paul II as a deep reminder for a special time of prayer and sharing in one another’s suffering through our ministry of the body, it seems rather fitting to begin this bioethics column with a refocus on the telos of our field. We do so in light of Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Brigid of Ireland (I’m very partial to the Irish, mostly because I’m part Irish), and Pope St. John Paul II’s theological and anthropological teachings, as applied to the medical ethics that we constantly encounter within our ministry of daily in caring for the body and soul of the most vulnerable among us. It is important to first remember our roots—indeed, the very roots of healthcare and bioethics—and that is a ministry of Christian theology, philosophy, and mercy.

Lest we forget, even pre-Christian history, during a philosophically rich time of the importance of the physical and metaphysical, supports our cause of a beautiful and unique marriage between theology and healing. As early as 350 B.C., the Greeks built temples associated with the healing god of Asclepeia, where people with various ailments would come for cure for body and soul.

It is no secret that the Catholic Church was the first to enter the care of the infirmed civilian on a large scale with in-patient medical care by most of today’s standards with a hospital at the end of the 4th century. Clearly, this is not to say that around the world, other types of medical care were non-existent. It does, however, demonstrate the ministerial and historic importance of what originally drove the care of the poor and the sick: a theological and anthropological recognition of the deep, deep connection between the body and the soul, human suffering, and salvation.

Historically, during the era in which the Roman Empire declared Christianity as its main religion, it transformed the care of the sick. Care was driven by beautiful philosophical and theological aspects interwoven into Christian mercy. It was our beautiful Orthodox Christian brethren, the Byzantines, that really began what we would today know of inpatient care, which included physicians, nurses, and orderlies.

After the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. with its founder being Saint Basil the Great, there was to be a construction of a hospital in every cathedral town. In 529 A.D., St. Benedict mandated moral obligations to care for the infirmed. We can also thank Emperor Charlemagne for instituting an even stronger relationship between theology and medical care when he ordered that a hospital should be attached to each cathedral and monastery. It was this that set the stage for religious orders dominating the field of the healthcare ministry.

In fact, during the Middle Ages, the primary function of hospitals was to serve as ministry of Christ’s redemptive suffering, because of the strong theological connections between body, soul, suffering, and salvation. Each contained a chapel, clergyman, and those who ministered to the infirm. The secondary function was providing charity to the sick who were also poor and those who were traveling.

It was really not until the Enlightenment period, or in philosophical history, the era of deep rationalism, that healthcare ministry took a turn for the worse and hospitals began to serve only medical needs. The first secular public hospital was founded in the 1700s. This era greatly did damage to not only the world, but to the care of the sick and to bioethics. It was an era that rejected anything metaphysical or spiritual. In other words, man is simply a body, a material substance. And if man is solely a material substance, then it is only the material that should be treated, dominated, abused, discarded, and used.

As we progress forward in our vocational calling to be the hands and feet of Christ, let us remind ourselves of the following: amid a world that rejects the metaphysical or spiritual as an important foundational part of medical care and ethics, we are called (one could posit obligated) to bring that light of theological and anthological significance back through all of our interactions with our patients and co-workers.

Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Bridget, and St. John Paul II! Ora pro nobis!