The Church: Field Hospital?

One of the prominent images of the Francis pontificate is that of the Church as a field hospital in the midst of battle. “Tend the wounds, tend the wounds!” calls Pope Francis. The Church is called to go out and preach the good news—the only true healing for sin and death. There are people dying on the field out there: addicted to various sins, trapped in selfishness, cowering in fear of pain, sickness, or death. Many of these people will not darken the doors of our churches, but they are in need of Christ and His message, so the Church is called to go out, to establish itself in the battlefield.

Not Only a Field Hospital

There are places in the world where a field hospital analogy is fitting. If you peruse the Pontifical Mission Society of the USA webpages, you can see the myriad ways the Church is still deeply involved in proclaiming the kerygma throughout the world. There are still people who have not heard of Christ, as hard as that is to believe (for some of us). Missionaries continue to give their lives, as physicians in the most remote of field hospitals, that people may come to believe. Pope Francis is, through this analogy, drawing our attention to these areas and these people—the global “margins”—and reminding us that Christ’s mandate to “Go out to all the world” is still in effect.

In the West, however, which has been described as post-Christian, the Church as a field hospital limps upon analysis. A field hospital is a place of triage and stark realities; There is time only to deal with the most life-threatening of injuries. Amputations take place, anesthetic is a luxury, lives are saved; However, some of the patients will certainly die. A field hospital doctor has no illusions about this. If she sees a patient that she knows is doomed, she doesn’t waste time with them but moves on to someone she might be able to save. I doubt that Pope Francis wants us to act that way, judging whether a soul is so far entrenched in sin as to be beyond hope. On the contrary, I assume the pope expects us to work and hope for the salvation of all our brothers and sisters, no matter their circumstances. No one is beyond redemption. We have to try to bring every soul to Christ even though it seems that many in our society have rejected him, more or less outright.

Another way that the analogy limps is that it seems to undervalue the tremendous capacity of the Church to diagnose and treat silent or particularly “sneaky” diseases. The Church is an “expert in humanity,” the body of Christ the Divine Physician. Sometimes only she can see what is really happening in a soul (through a person who has such a gift, such as St. Pio). A man may not have gaping wounds—a field hospital would turn him away—but if he has an abrasion that becomes infected, he could still die from it. Or he could have PTSD or another invisible killer. Therefore, we need the Church to be an expert not only in dramatic saves but in everyday prevention and care, because the healthier each of us gets, the better we will be able to serve one another. Confession isn’t only for mortal sins, even if venial sins are not as “dangerous.”

The Church as GP, specialist, surgeon

There are abundant options out there for alternative healing analogies. Let’s start with a GP (general practitioner). This is the doctor you (ought to) see every year for a physical who knows your medical history, keeps records of things like immunizations, medications, and X-rays, and ideally knows you a little through conversation. Not a bad analogy for the Church, then: you see her regularly, she keeps (sacramental) records, knows you through somewhat regular interaction. The more serious your condition, the more often she wants to see you. She has a lot of patients, though, so you may need patience and perseverance to get an appointment, or it may be at an inconvenient time, but you make it work, because it’s worth it.

Or how about the Church as a specialist, such as a neurologist? You are referred to her by your GP who sees troubling signs of something that she cannot diagnose or treat herself. How many struggles there are in the world that can be dealt with on the natural level to a certain extent, only to come up against a wall, a place where only the spiritual has something to say. The problem of evil is a classic example. The father of four who is killed by a “random” piece of building falling on him; the children killed in a car accident; multiple miscarriages that cannot be explained; suicide of a loved one. No one can help in these situations except a person who is rooted faith in Christ who himself suffered on the cross. (And even then, it will be a difficult road.) If death is the end, and there is nothing on the other side of it, then it is hard to avoid nihilism—which is arguably one of the biggest struggles in the Western world. We need the Church to be a specialist, then, who can diagnose and treat it.

Finally, let’s look at the Church as a surgeon—one who specializes, for this analogy, in removing cancerous tumors. As I have spent the last few years working in the area of the clergy abuse crisis, I would say that the Church is in great need of being a cancer surgeon. She needs to cut out the tumors of abuse and hold accountable those who would ignore the signs of cancer until it has spread throughout the body and is terminal. The expert surgeon also knows how to cut out only the tumor, leaving clean margins, and not harming any healthy organs or going into surgery without a plan. She knows what she is looking for, though, and she tries to remove all cancerous growth, not only the part she could see before going in. The Church has the tools that she needs to do this—or if she doesn’t, she needs to develop them. Every tumor—every abuse, every coverup—costs souls.

 Christ the Divine Physician

There is no one analogy that can perfectly encapsulate what it means for the Church to be the hands of Christ the Divine Physician, which is why I found it helpful to explore these different images. In the West, even though we are certainly in the midst of a battle for souls, it is a battle without a clear field; the battle is in our own hearts and homes, as it ever has been. We cannot set up a field hospital in one spot somewhere but must instead fill all the different healing roles there are. The Church needs healers everywhere.