A US Navy chaplain says parishes need to pay more attention to the needs of the wounded

In his recent interview with Jesuit publications Pope Francis offered us the image of a field hospital as an insight into the mission of the universal Church. I have been asked to describe my own experience of working in an actual field hospital.

Since 2006, when I transitioned from the active naval service in Florida to a Reserve unit in Washington DC, I have been assigned as chaplain for a Surgical Company which works in support of Marines. We have deployed to Morocco, Alaska, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places, sometimes as a unit and at other times individually. Before that I served for years as an active duty Navy chaplain and previously as a combat arms officer in the Army Armor Corps, as a tanker.

My current unit is a field hospital, Surgical Company Bravo, and because of that you could describe my work also as that of a hospital chaplain. I both observe and in some ways assist those who are the first responders. I get a front-row seat during the action, much of which is training, as the sailors and Marines hone their skills in service of others.

Why does a field hospital exist? Where there is a war or a battle there will be the wounded and the dead. In support of the fight the field hospital must function to keep as many as possible in the battle for total victory. Those whose wounds can be treated on the spot and sent back out to join the others in battle continue to be force-multipliers and better enable the military unit to achieve its objective. In more serious cases the wounded will need to be transferred to the rear for more intensive surgery or therapy. There are also the dead, and they must be cared for as well so there are mortuary services for reverent care of and transport of the deceased back to families and loved ones so that they can bury their dead with love and respect, with sacred rites.

The field hospital must be able to mobilise in a short period of time so as to better assist those military members called up for deployment to the place of conflict or assigned area of humanitarian support. All of the necessary equipment for medical treatment must be prepped and ready to go at all times. For this reason regular inspections and training are needed so that personnel, and equipment will be ready
at a moment’s notice.

As you can imagine, my work is restricted to the chaplain’s role of serving everyone in any way I am able for spiritual and other human reasons and, as a priest, to serve Catholics exclusively in terms of worship and sacraments.

What is the atmosphere like? Well, that depends on the needs and the mission. If a wounded sailor or Marine is brought in, everyone goes into action to play their role, however necessary, to aid the wounded. There are the sounds of the wounded until they are calmed and their pain is treated, if possible. There are the commands of the doctors or others in charge to those who assist them so that the right instruments and equipment is brought into play as needed. Also, there are the human smells that are the result of bodily wounds, such as blood.

What happens to people who arrive their for treatment? They are assessed as soon as possible, with order of treatment based on urgency of need, if there is a mass casualty event, for example. They are comforted as much as possible while the doctors and corpsmen check them out to try and figure out what is wrong if the problem is not immediately apparent. Some patients may need to be sent for care at a higher echelon if the field hospital is overwhelmed or does not have the equipment or personnel necessary to take proper care of them. In that case, transportation such as a helicopter must be arranged so they can be transported. That also is planned based on need and resources available.

How do the patients see the people who care for them in the field hospital? They are grateful, frequently they almost have a reverence for the corpsmen, or “docs”, as they often call them. Some Marines will never go anywhere without the “doc” and they treat them as one of their own, also taking good care of them so they will be fully prepared to do their job when the need arises. There is a mutual regard and loyalty between medical personnel and the military members they serve.

What is Pope Francis getting at when he compares the Church to a field hospital in a war zone? I believe he wants us to remember that our faithful often have wounds, though we cannot see them, perhaps, and those wounds have tremendous spiritual and other effects on human beings that hamper a full, free and joyful relationship with God as offered in the Church. I believe he wants us to adapt our care to include sensitivity to those wounds that prevent others from partaking fully in the Church’s life and the Lord’s healing from sin and other realities that hurt them and burden them.

If we Catholics are to now see ourselves as workers in a field hospital, what kind of mindset do we need? We must be concerned with customer care. We must be ready to meet others where they are before we know what they need, to get where they need to be. We need to be with them enough to “have the smell of the sheep” on us, as Pope Francis says. In this way we will be able to truly care for them, to prescribe not some arbitrary medicine but to focus on their real needs. This way others will begin to experience the love of Christ truly present already in the Church and in the local church of the parish.

If parishes are to be like field hospitals, what kind of things do they need to do differently? We must always operate with the knowledge that grace builds on nature. If families or children are not getting to Sunday Mass, if families are not attending together, there may be human reasons underlying the symptom that need to be treated first. Parenting skills must be dealt with before parents are prepared to see they are leaders in the home, the first teachers of our children in the ways of faith, and then to act on that God-given role. Our witness must be one which compels our recently confirmed young people to pursue their faith and to continue to attend Mass. Our religious education must be effective in handing on the truths of faith to our young people, and so on.

Our proclamation of the Gospel and teaching of the Faith will not have effect without a knowledge of those we are sent to serve. We must take the time to examine and diagnose the spiritual illness before able to effectively offer a cure. This takes time and love.

Fr Kevin M Cusick is a US Navy chaplain. He blogs at Mcitl.blogspot.com and his Twitter account is @MCITL

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 4/10/13