Compassion – the heart of the ministry of Jesus
Saint Luke by Andrea Mantegna. “Today, St Luke’s Day, we are reminded that among the close followers of Jesus was Luke the physician. That he was an educated physician is borne out by the contents of the Gospel attributed to him and the specific medical terminology used in describing sick people presenting to Jesus seeking help and healing. Incidentally St Luke is also the one who more than any other New Testament writer records the respect and understanding Jesus showed to women, a very radical stand to take in those days.”
According to a newspaper report some months ago, a leading UK academic suggested that compassion is not an essential ingredient of healthcare. Dr Anna Smajdor, who lectures on ethics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, was reported as saying that compassion will not solve any problems in the NHS. For her compassion is “not a necessary component” of the health service.
While one’s immediate reaction may well be one of horror at such a comment, there may well be areas of medicine which are not hands-on where that could possibly be true. But when it comes to direct engagement with sick people and their families, compassion has to be there. Healing is not just about drugs and procedures; it is about people with feelings and anxieties who need and deserve compassion and understanding. And thankfully for the most part it is freely given in our hospitals and elsewhere in the health service.
Today, St Luke’s Day, we are reminded that among the close followers of Jesus was Luke the physician. That he was an educated physician is borne out by the contents of the Gospel attributed to him and the specific medical terminology used in describing sick people presenting to Jesus seeking help and healing. Incidentally St Luke is also the one who more than any other New Testament writer records the respect and understanding Jesus showed to women, a very radical stand to take in those days.
St Luke reminds us that compassion for the sick and other marginalised and vulnerable people is at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. And Christians ever since have dedicated themselves to caring for the sick all over the world. Churches and individuals of goodwill ensured that Ireland would be no exception.
Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital is an example. Its founder, Bartholomew Mosse, who had trained as a barber surgeon, was deeply concerned at the plight of the poor in 18th-century Dublin and in particular the vulnerability of women in childbirth. The son of a clergyman, he decided that the needs of women and babies could be best met by providing food, shelter and medical care. He began his work in a house in George’s Lane in 1745 but his dream building became a reality when the current building in Parnell Square was opened in 1757. The beautiful chapel located over the entrance hall emphasised the spiritual dimension of care.
A recently published guide to the chapel by the hospital librarian Anne O’Byrne describes the magnificent ceiling created by the stuccodore Barthelmij Cramillion. It is seen as “a vivid celebration of the symbols of fertility together with what were then fashionable iconographic representations of Christian virtues in the figures of faith, hope and charity”. It was the living out of those virtues that brought the Rotunda and almost all our great caring institutions into being. Mosse was no starry eyed idealist. He recognised the importance of “balancing the books” and to that end the site included several fundraising facilities including a pleasure garden “with walks shrubberies and a spacious bowling green and a grand terrace in which an orchestra played”.
Compassion was the founding principle and generations of doctors, midwives and nurses have been inspired to see their work as a calling as sacred as any other. It is vital to keep such values to the fore in these challenging times for the health service when they could so easily be considered to be “not a necessary component” of healthcare.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell said: “The root of the matter is a very simple and old-fashioned thing, a thing so simple that I am almost ashamed to mention it, for fear of the derisive smile with which wise cynics will greet my words. The thing I mean – please forgive me for mentioning it – is love, Christian love or compassion. If you feel like this, you have a motive for existence, a guide in action, a reason for courage, an imperative necessary for intellectual honesty.”