The fading presence of sisters in Catholic hospitals
Today’s New York Times has an article by Kevin Sack headlined “Nuns, a ‘Dying Breed,’ Fade From Leadership Roles at Catholic Hospitals.” It probably won’t tell you much you don’t already know, but it’s a good and sensitive summary of the state of Catholic health care and its relationship to women’s religious communities. We all know about the startling decline in membership in religious orders, and the move to lay leadership (or secularization) in ministries like education and health care. But Sack’s article is also a reminder of the amazing successes of those same orders a few generations back, when they built major institutions from very modest beginnings.
The article reminded me of the exhibit Women & Spirit: Catholic Sisters in America, which I saw when it was at Ellis Island last fall (and which Cheryl Wittenauer wrote about for Commonweal). It features artifacts from the pioneer days of many religious orders whose service was focused on providing health care to the needy. I remember being moved by a page from a book of records, which is described in the NYT article as evidence of the charitable focus of the sisters’ hospital work: “The St. Louis nuns’ earliest ledgers denoted patients unable to pay as ‘Our dear Lord’s.’”
Other than crucifixes on the walls and marble Madonnas in the lobby, Catholic hospitals do not look particularly different from secular ones. But their administrators say that what makes them distinct is a values-driven approach, reflected at SSM in a mission statement that pledges to use exceptional care to “reveal the healing presence of God.”
I spent a wakeful night in a hospital recently, waiting for my son to be born, and at some point I found myself looking around the room for a crucifix. It took me a moment to recognize what I was looking for, and to remind myself that I wasn’t in a Catholic hospital. At times like that, clearly, something in me is conditioned to lean on the institutional presence of the Church. I should add that I have no complaints about the care I received (and I did have a rosary handy to satisfy my need for a prayer aid). But the experience made me appreciate the importance of health care as a ministry in the Church. If crucifixes disappeared from the hospital rooms where they’re hanging now, I’d consider it a major loss.