Cure or Prevention?

“The problem with preventative medicine getting any attention and appropriate support is that when you are successful, nothing happens. It’s the opposite of clinical medicine, where you’re responding to something where you’re grateful you didn’t die.” This quote is from Alfred Sommer when he received recognition for his work in preventive medicine.

everyday Catholic
When and how do we ever celebrate the commonplace, run-of-the-mill, ordinary Christian who is persevering, maintaining their healthy Christian living, not breaking every cardinal sin? W.P. Wittman photo

There are countless research grants with millions of dollars attached to them to find a cure for this or that disease. There are countless fundraising runs and events across the nation as foundations devote time and money to find a cure. Success is measured in unassailable statistics of people in remission or cured of the disease or ailment. People win Nobel Prizes for the cure they have found.

You feel sorry for the Alfred Sommers in life. He and many like him have devoted their knowledge and careers not in finding a cure but in encouraging habits to prevent the disease in the first place. As he says, there is not much glory in prophylactic work. How do you measure the achievements of preventive care? It is hard to calculate. If a person does not have a particular disease is it because the regimentation for prevention was followed or just maybe the person was not predisposed to that disease in the first place.

The excitement and fanfare comes with those miraculous moments when something was there that should not have been and now it is not. The removal of the “bad” when all odds are against you is what creates the headlines. It is also what causes saints. One of the steps to canonization is that miracle, typically curing someone from their illness or disease. There are patrons for diseases but I could not find a patron saint for “prevention of diseases.” The reason most likely being how would the Office of Saints be able to prove that the person to whom you were praying prevented you from getting the disease. How many of us have ever prayed to a saint-in-waiting for the prevention of a disease? Have you ever prayed that your dad or even yourself does not get heart disease and pray continuously? If you or your dad does not get heart disease is it a miracle that you can document for canonization. Paraphrasing what Dr. Sommer said above, the problem with anything preventative getting any attention is that when you are successful, nothing happens. How do you measure when “nothing happens”? Now if you had a heart disease and prayed for a miracle and then after the prayer there is no heart disease, there is something measurable.

Most of us live where there is “no way to measure” the results of our efforts. We encourage people to live moral lives, to have good Christian lifestyles and there is some success in people heeding our advice. But we can’t measure it. We can measure and feel good about the success stories. We feel we have done something when someone comes to us with a heavy burden or a sin which they have carried for so long and they walk away having that burden lifted. Our spirits are lifted when the person who has been away from the Church for years is dragged there one Christmas by his girlfriend calls the following week to talk to you as to why he left and now why he wants to come back. We can take account of those who have no knowledge of God but seek something beyond themselves capping their journey in the RCIA program and are now counted among us. These measured numbers of the lapsed Catholic, the RCIA participant, the reconciled parishioner really are just a fraction of the rest of the people who are always there doing their best to live good, holy, church-going lives and we are helping them on the way. How can we and do we celebrate that success? Maybe we should be thankful or see it as a success, “when we did not do anything to drive them away.” Even the annual reporting for the diocese only asks for “successes” — how many people came into the Church, do you have a program for lapsed Catholic, how many First Communions, etc. Maybe a category of how many parishioners are still Roman Catholics in good standing because the parish helped sustain them. What is not measured are the moments of continuous feeding people, nourishing them weekly through the Eucharist and preaching, persevering with them. Those moments are never measured among the successes.

preventative care
How do you measure the achievements of preventive care? Shutterstock photo

I have a hard time listening to those stories of people who give witness of their life, whether it be Church life or society in general, which was pretty messy and now they have found themselves and are telling everybody about it. A few years ago, I attended a Day of Recollection for youth and young adults and the guest speaker/musician began to give her life story which was not pretty. She lived the fast life. But now through music she has re-discovered Jesus. I am never comfortable with headliners sharing their “sins” to youth as if what they did was just part of the journey that has brought them to a place where they found Jesus. My jaded side sits there and thinks, “I did not know Jesus was lost, but I am glad he has been found.” It almost sounds as if one can only be a better Christian if you have estranged yourself from God, sinned a lot and then come back” It is the sensationalism that comes with the cure that frightens me. I am just hoping an impressionable young person does not go out and do what the speaker was doing in order to feel the euphoria of being forgiven and returning home.

When and how do we ever celebrate the common place, the run-of-the mill, ordinary Christian who is persevering, maintaining their healthy Christian living, not breaking every Cardinal sin? I don’t usually advocate mediocrity but in contrast to the sensationalism that is often the measure for success, mediocrity is getting short changed.

Most priests live in the common place, run of the mill parish doing what we can, where we can with our commonplace, run-of-the-mill parishioners who are doing what they can, where they can living good Christian lives. Yes we do the “cure” moments (reconciling them after they have sinned, removing any obstacles that prevent them from living a full life in the Church), the moments which we can measure. But for the most part we are there giving them a daily healthy diet of Eucharist, the sacraments, pastoral care, encouraging them to travel a healthy path, hopefully preventing them to have to seek more invasive measures which require undoing what they have done.

I recently attended a graduation ceremony for a group of chief surgical residents. There were many accolades for their skill Some recounted the first time they were handed a scalpel by the attending surgeon to remove that which should not be there. In the medical field there are surgeons who remove what should not be there and there are physicians who work to prevent what should not be there. We will never be out of a job any more than these doctors, each specializing in an important field.

We live the spectrum of those specialties. We are both surgeons (reconcilers, healers) of those who find themselves in need and the “doctors” who encourage ‘lead them not into temptation. We, like the surgeon, restore graced to un-graced moment and we maintain grace for the grace filled Christian. A surgeon sees the person typically just for a moment in time and does heroic work of healing, while we have the privilege of seeing them not just for a moment of healing, but all that leads up to it and that which will follow. Surgeons often literally peer in the body of a person and see such a small piece of who the patient is; we get to peer into their very being to see the fullness of their body, soul and spirit. Hopefully walking with them during their mediocre moments and being there for the more exceptional moments as well, when needed. TP 

FATHER CARRION is pastor of Holy Cross, Our Lady of Good Counsel, St. Mary, Star of the Sea in Baltimore, Md., and is director of the Deacon Formation Program for the Archdiocese.