Pope Francis has a natural flair for vivid and figurative language. In one of his first interviews as pope, in September 2013, he was asked to reflect on how he saw the church. He replied,“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.”
This powerful image suggests a church which is in the thick of the ‘battles’ of contemporary life and is there to welcome the broken, heal and restore them to health. This image has particular resonance for a world in the middle of the ‘campaign’ against Covid-19.
Tomas Halik, a Czech priest and theologian who was ordained in secret and ministered in the underground church during the Communist era, expanded Pope Francis’ field hospital metaphor in an article written during the pandemic lockdown. The church, he wrote, should not remain in splendid isolation but should give help where people are afflicted. A field hospital has a “diagnostic” role to play in identifying the “signs of times” – discerning the movement of the Spirit in contemporary life – as well as a “preventative” role, creating an “immune system” in a society “where the malignant viruses of fear, hatred, populism and nationalism are rife” and a “convalescent” role, helping to overcome the traumas of the past through forgiveness.
Society at the moment, still very much in the middle of the pandemic, with a deep economic recession beginning to bite, resembles a battlefield. There has been tragic loss of life and physical illness. A lot of the injuries, however, are hidden. The emotional impact in particular, with a sharp increase in levels of anxiety and fear, has been widely reported.
So if the church has a healing role in society at this time, one of the most helpful things it might do is to guide people towards an understanding of human happiness and wholeness. In the Christian tradition, original sin is what we call our tendency to look for happiness in the wrong place, in ways that aren’t good for us.
The Christian tradition has an understanding of human happiness which is based on four core relationships working in harmony. Pope Francis referred to this in his letter to the whole human race, Laudato Si, when he said:
“Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbour, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth. When all these relationships are neglected, when justice no longer dwells in the land, the Bible tells us that life is endangered.” (LS, 70)
It was widely noted that each of these four core relationships were revived during lockdown. In spite of the prohibition on visiting church, many people (many more people than went to church) found themselves looking for services online, or for some kind of spiritual meaning or nourishment in their lives. There was attention to our neighbour, as many people rediscovered a sense of community and looked out for the most vulnerable.
There was a new appreciation of birdsong in our quiet towns and cities, an awareness that nature was almost taking a breath as the road and skies emptied of traffic. And there was an attention to individual well-being tied up with the first three.
For those who are gathered into the church’s field hospital, there is no judgement, no platitudes, no blame. There is an invitation, an offer of life from a loving tender God who can be found in the “least of these”, the most vulnerable in society, who can be found in the wonder of nature, who can be found in the still small voice within our hearts. That just might be the road back to health.
Raymond Friel is a speaker and writer of a number of books on Catholic education and the Church, including ‘Gospel Values for Catholic Schools: A Practical Guide’ and ‘The Revolution of Tenderness: Being a Catholic in Today’s Church’, both from Redemptorist Publications.