Sister answered my question. A few years ago I met an elderly, retired nun. We began to talk. She told me that her long life as a religious had been spent in nursing, in serving in one of her community’s hospitals.
She said that she could not forget April 4, 1968. She was on duty in the Emergency Room of the old St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. They received a call telling them that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot, and they were bringing him to St. Joseph’s.
I know something about the geography of the city, situated as it is on the banks of the “River of the Immaculate Conception,” as the French explorers called the mighty Mississippi.
Why did the emergency people, especially since Dr. King was so terribly injured, literally drive past three very large, state-of-the-art hospitals, to reach St. Joseph’s?
She answered that King himself had directed that if ever he took seriously ill or was injured in any way, and if it were in a Southern city, he should be taken to that city’s Catholic hospital. Hence his aides and associates ordered that he be taken to St. Joseph’s and not to a hospital nearer the site of his shooting.
Not a Catholic himself, living in Southern cities with not that many Catholics, he knew nevertheless that Catholic hospitals stood for something good.
Part of the good was a reputation for fine medical care, but he said that a Catholic hospital would respect him as a human being despite his being African-American, and a Catholic hospital would give the best care available.
How is that for the Gospel in action?
Several weeks ago, I watched a rerun on television of the 1938 film “Jezebel.” Bette Davis won an Academy Award for her performance in the movie. She played an aristocratic woman in pre-Civil War New Orleans who had her eyes set on a handsome man of the Creole upper crust.
Drama truly comes when the man contracts yellow fever.
Mosquitoes transmit the disease, we know now. They bite, insert the dangerous virus in a person’s bloodstream, and the host falls victim. Vaccinations exist to safeguard against the illness, and long ago public authorities began to put in place measures to upset mosquito breeding and to exterminate mature mosquitoes.
Likely few American doctors who have never been to exotic tropical sites have ever seen an active case of yellow fever, but for so long it was the scourge of river cities in the South. Untold thousands of people were terrified of experiencing yellow fever or dying from it.
Nothing cures yellow fever, not even today, but therapies exist, and current medical care provides an advantageous context for treatment. For generations, however, it was a death sentence, and the best minds thought that yellow fever was contagious, as was chicken pox or influenza. It was therefore the law in many places that anyone diagnosed with yellow fever had to be removed from the community.
In “Jezebel,” the young man in the heart of the woman played by Bette Davis, helpless and barely conscious, was taken from his home by the police and placed with others suffering from the same malady on a wagon to take them to a riverboat that would transport them to a remote island in the Louisiana bayou.
The wagon ride was bad enough, but the island was described as a hellhole.
Somebody in the scriptwriting department knew history. Not only was the panic about yellow fever depicted, but sitting with the poor men and women hurled into the wagon, and joining them on the island, were Daughters of Charity, Catholic religious.
“Jezebel” was fiction; the care of the Daughters for the sick is anything but fiction.
The history of Catholic nuns, brothers and priests in helping the sick — and for hundreds upon hundreds of years at that — is a heritage that we should celebrate, and that we should call our people, and especially our young, to imitate.
Many of our people do not know what to think when they hear of statements, and gestures, by Pope Francis as he sees the world’s oppressed and disadvantaged.
It is easy, and not unrealistic, to look at the problem the pope discusses and at once to draw the connection, or as often as not, to enter the conflict that comes, based upon politics or social conventions.
In early April, the pope went to Lesbos, the Mediterranean island that has become a way station for people fleeing the turmoil in Iraq and Syria. Several months ago, he spoke of the human rights possessed by persons leaving Mexico, almost all of whom come to the United States, and by inference he challenged the United States government — and Americans — to be forthcoming with regard to immigrants.
The immigration issue is complex. Staggering are the complications presented by the great exodus from the Middle East to Europe.
Pope Francis is reminding us that every person is precious, and that we, as disciples of Jesus, should go out of our way to bring them to peace and security.
It is more easily said than done, but basic is the instinct that individuals in whatever travail are vested with the majesty of being God’s own, and, as was the Lord, we are a serving people.
Such has been the Church through all these years. Such it was when Martin Luther King Jr. ordered that if mishap befell him, he should be taken to a Catholic hospital. Such were the Daughters of Charity in that scene in the fictional “Jezebel.”
Such were the Daughters of Charity in real life who volunteered to serve in the U.S. public hospital for those suffering from Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, in Carville, Louisiana. No matter the reward promised, the government could never hire enough people to staff the facility in Carville, a facility that it owned.
The Daughters came forward.
During this time of year, schools across the country have graduated students. Commencement ceremonies have come to be very important rites of passage. It is interesting. Graduates dress as if they were Benedictine monks. They wear full, long, black, pleated garments, just like the Benedictine cuculla, a hand-me-down from the days long, long ago when the monks of St. Benedict were the scholars and teachers of the Western world.
Catholic education has been opening the doors to opportunity and fulfillment for 1,500 years. It is another service.
The pope is asking nothing new of us. He is calling us to be what the Church has been all along, indeed since the apostles, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, had mercy upon the sick and ignorant of their time.
This is our heritage.
Not that long ago, Catholic hospitals were in every important American city from Honolulu to Boston, from Anchorage to Miami, from San Francisco to Baltimore. Many, if not most, were founded to care for the poor who could not pay for services.
Through devoted servants of God’s mercy, Catholic enterprises served the troubled, unwanted and mistreated across this country and around the world. Catholics fought for the rights of labor. They fought for civil rights.
A stinginess is afoot in our culture, born of fear but also of selfishness. It is contrary to the Gospel.
Pope Francis is saying many things, and we cannot expect everyone to agree with him. We cannot command anyone to agree with him.
The atmosphere this year, in which politics swirl, is poisonous and at times odious. Our people understandably may not know what to think and which way to turn.
Precisely, then, for them, in their quandaries and indeed in their misconceptions, we priests are called. We proceed in this effort from a golden platform of love, mercy and truth, built by our predecessors.
God is love. We priests are God’s instruments, representatives and humble servants.
MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.