Our Ministry at 25: Reflections on FHCM’s Place in the World

At the beginning of our 25th anniversary year as a health system, I wanted to take some time to reflect on Catholic healthcare in America. Though FHCM is small compared to some of the other Catholic health systems in this country, we play a significant role in this vital ministry. Our presence in West Point, Neb., Zanesville, Ohio, and Manitowoc and Kaukauna, Wis., not only provides these communities and the people we serve quality and compassionate care, but offers a link to Jesus’ continuing mission of love and healing in the world.

While Catholic health care organizations comprise the largest provider of not-for-profit health care in America today, we have all been built upon one foundational purpose: to fulfill the Gospel mandate to proclaim the good news and “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers” (Matt 10:8). This is what compelled 12 Ursuline sisters to travel from France to New Orleans in 1727 to provide health and social services to the underserved immigrant poor in that city and the following year to open Charity Hospital, the first Catholic hospital in what was to become the United States.

Today, Catholic healthcare, in the form of hospitals and nursing homes, is present in all 50 states. According to the Catholic Health Association of the United States (CHA), there are more than 600 Catholic hospitals in the U.S., which employ more than 500,000 full-time and more than 200,000 part-time workers. Every day, roughly one in six patients in the United States—more than 5.5 million every year—receives care in a Catholic hospital.

The vast majority of Catholic healthcare organizations in the U.S. were founded and continue to be sponsored by congregations of women religious. And like the Ursulines before them, the many congregations of sisters began their healthcare ministries for one basic reason: people, usually in poor immigrant communities, were suffering and their needs were not being met. This was certainly the case for us. Today, we all remain committed to continuing the Catholic Church’s healing ministry for virtually that same reason. But, as you all well know, the health and medical landscape in this country, especially for Catholic healthcare, is far different now than it was even a few decades ago.

Healing in the Name of the Church

As a ministry of the Catholic Church, we have always been committed to our faith’s longstanding moral, ethical and social justice principles. Recent efforts to reform healthcare have given us a perfect opportunity to express, in solidarity with our bishops and fellow Catholic healthcare organizations, those principles and core values. We are founded on a concern for serving the poor and vulnerable, upholding human dignity at all stages of life, acting on behalf of justice, responsibly stewarding our resources, attending to the whole person and promoting the common good. As the healthcare delivery system changes in this country, our commitment to church teaching does not. One of the major challenges of the health ministry today is balancing the competing needs of the people of God for workable, successful and compassionate care delivery systems with the competing pressures of multiple ideologies in modern society. I fervently believe that Catholic healthcare is at the crossroads of big business and church ministry. It is up to us to find how to operate our ministry in a way that is consistent with Gospel values in a pluralistic world. This is not an easy task, but it is a task that is finding success!

Hope for the Future

The future of Catholic healthcare in America will be characterized by further consolidation of services and structures as we continue to realize the importance of working together for the sake of serving the needs of people and communities. I expect we’ll also begin to see new and evolving models of healthcare delivery, especially in the areas of in-home care and communication technologies, such as electronic medical records and telemedicine. These changes and technologies cannot be an end in themselves, rather, they will become new ways of interacting with those in need and assuring them that care is available in their time of need. As the evolution of healthcare delivery in this country occurs, we need to be prepared to help both our health professionals and the people we serve to make all the transitions necessary to continue to bring the healing touch of Jesus into their lives through their own choices about the type and extent of care they wish to receive.

Despite all the work for health reform over the past year, there is still no clear path for the future of the ministry. Multiple proposals designed to reform the payment and delivery systems have been mired in the legislative process. It is impossible to predict when and whether the discussed proposals to reform healthcare will make it through Congress. Regardless of how healthcare reform turns out, however, I expect the church, both its leaders and the lay faithful, will continue to advocate improved healthcare services in America. Human dignity and the sacredness of life at all stages, accessibility to safe and quality care, affordability for patients and providers, must always be areas of concern, not only for those of us in healthcare, but for all who are concerned about how our society treats its members, especially those who are poor and vulnerable.

No matter what happens in the years to come, I have great hope for the future of Catholic healthcare and for FHCM. The Catholic health ministry remains rooted in the Gospel mandate, fueled by the creativity of committed leaders, and is ever more necessary in our complex world. The changes in American religious life have impacted the health care delivery system but have not defeated it. Rather, I have found a new vibrancy in the leadership of our ministry, a new understanding of its importance to the whole church by our bishops, and a new commitment to renew and recreate the ministry that will be passed on to a new generation. In all of the challenges we face, I try to keep in mind that the Catholic health ministry does not belong to me or to our congregation alone. It is Christ’s ministry, and as St. Paul in his letter to Timothy proclaimed: “I know him in whom I have believed and am confident that he is able to guard what has been entrusted to me” (2 Tim 1:12).