Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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For the president of the local guild of the Catholic Medical Association, medicine is a vocation
by Eric Meisfjord, Editor, Inland Register
(From the November 19, 2015 edition of the Inland Register)
Bishop Thomas Daly was the main celebrant for the White Mass honoring the medical profession at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes Oct. 18. Bishop Daly preached to a church filled to capacity. (IR photo courtesy of Catholic Charities)
Dr. Alfonso Oliva (IR photo by Eric Meisfjord)
Although it bears the name “Catholic Medical Association,” the events sponsored by its Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Guild are open to anyone, said Dr. Alfonso Oliva, the local Guild’s president since 2011.
“What we’re concerned with,” he said in a recent interview, “I think concerns everyone in the diocese: End of life issues. Bioethics issues.”
The subjects that concern the Guild and its wider CMA membership are difficult, he admitted. But they are subjects that people, Catholics and others as well, deal with on a daily basis: “caring for elderly patients. Their sick relatives.”
One event was the annual “White Mass,” celebrated this year as part of the 11 a.m. Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes in Spokane on Oct. 18, the feast day of the evangelist, St. Luke, who is also the patron saint of physicians and surgeons.
Dr. Oliva, himself a surgeon, was drawn to the Catholic Medical Association (CMA) because of what he called “the obvious need. The culture in general was fragmenting,” he said.
But the medical profession itself is also troubled, he said. Too many too often see medicine as “just an occupation,” instead of a vocation, he said.
Another troubling trend is the fragmentation of medical care, with “super-specialized” personnel who no longer see “the patient as someone with intrinsic value.
“If you go to a hospital today, you see a hospitalist one day, another the next day. The continuity of care we had before is no longer available to most patients.” Hospitals employ physicians, who in term feel like just another employee. The loss of that sense of vocation as more than a job, but a true vocation, is “troubling,” he said.
Another area of concern for the CMA is education in issues that have a direct impact on the nation in general and on the Church in particular. It is one attempt to help hone people’s understanding of Catholic social teaching and how that teaching applies to health care, to bioethics.
One example of the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Guild’s work was sponsorship of a talk by Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, former president of Gonzaga University, on the scientific evidence for the existence of God. That talk alone was attended by over 350 people, he said. That broader education effort can be valuable to anyone, whether working in medicine or not.
“We would like to make our events diocese-wide,” said Dr. Oliva. “What we’re concerned with, I think, concerns everyone in the diocese.”
Their biggest focus at present, he said, is religious freedom and conscience protection. He sees those conscience rights being usurped not only in the United States, but in Canada as well.
His own vocation as a physician – and he sees it very clearly as a vocation – arises from his own medical practice, and how his faith guides what he does and how he does it.
His family was a source of strong Catholic faith. They came to the United States when Dr. Oliva was just five. They were hard-working people of faith; he described his mother as “very devout.”
He wanted to be a physician from childhood. “I remember thinking, in childhood, if you could positively impact that life of one person, it would be worth it.” That observation has continued to hold true to this day.
“My personal practice has to do with breast cancer reconstruction,” he said. “That’s my expertise.” As a surgeon, “You have the opportunity to have a positive impact on someone who’s going through a life-threatening event. Certainly it’s a life-altering event. It’s a humbling experience to have the opportunity to have a positive impact on their lives, on their families.”
That sense of respect for his patients, for all people, arises from what he calls “the basis for all Catholic social doctrine: the essential value of every human life. We can reason that from a humanistic standpoint, but it only makes sense from a religious standpoint: from belief in Jesus Christ. Today we have a society that doesn’t really believe in the intrinsic value of every human being. Humans are considered commodities. We have breakdown in our families and culture in general. I don’t know how one is going to repair that without a return to Christian belief.”
This summer, for instance, he found himself re-reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. The author, he said, makes a “very clean point: in a godless world, every action is meaningless.”
Without faith, the essence of life becomes a struggle, he believes. “Because then,” without faith, “death and suffering are seen as a defeat. They aren’t seen as a means to possible redemption, a gateway to an everlasting life.” And those are the very issues that concern the vocation of medicine, each and every day. Without faith, the practice of medicine “can become oppressive. Especially when you deal with the death of children.”
There is a certain risk in being outspoken about faith within the medical field. Being a public member of the Guild puts “a bullseye on your back.” Members run the risk of being misunderstood, or characterized as uncaring zealots – a kind of “white martyrdom” of public witness, he said.
Yet there is no conflict between the sciences of healing and faith. It’s “impossible to look at the miracle of a single cell, the function of a human body, and not think there’s divine inspiration to all of it.
“The truth: there’s a single truth,” he said. “The truth is the truth. We arrive at it through faith and science. I think it’s reasonable and rational to believe. It’s very difficult not to believe. It’s irrational to think that human beings are the process of random events.”
Ultimately, he hopes that the work of the Guild will provide opportunities. He hopes to bring together “marginal Catholic physicians” so that they can grow in their spirituality and their understanding of the richness of Catholic social teaching, their understanding of the crucial importance of the sanctity of life. “To have a better understanding of the theology of the body” of St. John Paul II. And “to reinvigorate our profession with people who view it as a profession.”
Throughout it all, he calls himself “blessed” to be married to a woman who shares his faith. It would all be impossible without family. After 35 years of marriage, “the most important aspect of my life is that she is Catholic.
“I think personal sanctification is really what the Guild is all about, for every person,” he said. “That’s a life-long journey.”
(For more information about the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, visit the web site: www.cathmed.org)
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