by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
The beginning of Advent for me was a surprising wake-up call.
On the First Sunday of Advent, I made a pastoral visit to our oldest parish in the archdiocese, Immaculate Conception in St. Marys, and her sister parish, St. Stanislaus in Rossville. I enjoyed the pastoral visit. There are many beautiful things happening in both parishes. Father Justin Hamilton is a good shepherd for both parish families.
Late Sunday afternoon, I began losing blood through my intestines. Like many men, I chose to ignore this aggravating symptom, hoping it would resolve itself. By Monday morning, I was lightheaded and feeling weak. Msgr. Stuart Swetland, with whom I share a residence (in fact, if you Google the address, it is identified as the home of the president of Donnelly College), was kind enough to take me to KU Med’s emergency room. I must have looked awful, because they started me on IV fluids immediately.
The admitting doctor was very kind. He looked very young, but everyone looks young to me these days! He noticed my title, Archbishop. He said that he did not know much about Catholic hierarchy. He asked me what an archbishop was. I responded by asking him if he was Christian. He responded: “No.” I asked him if he had any religious faith. He replied: “No.” He was from California. He and his wife had moved to Kansas City for medical school.
I tried to explain to him the Catholic understanding of bishops and archbishops. He was very polite and seemed genuinely interested. It saddened me that he did not know Jesus and had no faith in God. He was intelligent, competent and compassionate. I thanked him for his vocation as a medical doctor and promised to pray for him. I have been keeping him in my prayers and asking the Lord to reveal himself to this young doctor.
I was admitted to KU and received excellent care from the doctors and nurses, several of whom are Catholic. Interestingly, from the moment I got to KU, my bleeding stopped. I called a gastrointestinal doctor, who was a former president of our Kansas City Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, and described my symptoms.
Not presuming to diagnose me over the phone, he said from my description that I probably had a lower intestinal bleed that 80% of the time resolves itself. He was correct. With the help of intravenous nourishment and some antibiotics, I was on the mend.
As a precaution, they did a colonoscopy to determine if there was anything more serious going on. Fortunately, it confirmed the diagnosis, and I was back home by Wednesday, able to eat real food again.
Another amazing Catholic doctor on staff at KU Med visited me while I was there. Among all of his other responsibilities, he gives his time to mentor the Catholic medical students, helping them to grow in their faith life as they as grow in the medical knowledge and skills they will need as physicians.
For me, the entire experience made me marvel at the miracle of the human anatomy. The human body is amazing. Many years ago, I read a book entitled: “Fearfully, Wonderfully Made.” It was authored by a physician whose parents were Protestant missionaries. The book describes the incredible complexity of the human body with its many different types of cells that must each perform its unique function for our bodies to work well.
The author marveled at the amazing physical capacities of the human body, such as the body’s ability to heal itself in many cases, whether it is a broken bone or a bleed in the intestine. Modern science and medicine grew out of a Christian culture. Science only makes sense if there is an order and a design within the physical world. This design in the physical universe that is also reflected in the human body reveals a designer, a creator — God.
While I was in the hospital, I received word that my cousin Roger died. He was the second oldest of my aunt’s and uncle’s eight sons with whom I spent a lot of time growing up. Roger was a year younger than me. Unfortunately, he was suffering from his third bout with cancer. Despite all of our modern medical knowledge, medicines and therapies, this virulent cancer took Roger’s life in this world.
In the book “Fearfully, Wonderfully Made,” the author describes cancer as rebellious cells. In the case of cancer, particular cells are no longer performing their special function for the good of the entire body, but rather, reproducing at alarming rates that threaten the body’s health. Cancer cells no longer are fulfilling their purpose for the good of the whole body, but are “selfishly” reproducing in a manner that jeopardizes the health of the entire body and will lead eventually to their own demise.
The Bible tells us that disease and death were not part of God’s original plan for humanity. They are the fruits of the rebellion of our first parents, who wanted to push God out of their lives so that they could become their own gods and goddesses. When we separate from God, chaos reigns.
In this sin-fractured world, we are all subject to suffering and death. Jesus enters fully into our human condition, even to the point of experiencing suffering and death. Jesus does not eliminate suffering and death, but gives meaning and power to our suffering united to his crucifixion. Jesus gives us the blessed assurance that death does not win in the end because through our baptism, we share in his eternal life.
What a gift is the Incarnation! What a grace to know this God who loves us so much that he pursues us to the point of immersing himself into our humanity. What a blessing to know this God, who so often heals us from our suffering and life’s adversities. By sharing in his risen life, Jesus provides the ultimate healing: eternal life with Our Lord in his heavenly kingdom.
I continue to think of that young doctor who helped admit me at KU and to pray for him. I pray that God will open the door of his heart to encounter the loving God, whose amazing fingerprint is found in the beauty of the human body.
One of the tragedies of our time is a distorted scientism that fails to recognize God’s image in all of creation. Instead of marveling at a God who created the cosmos and made human beings his divine masterpiece, many get caught up with their own abilities to understand and manipulate the created world.
Our scientific knowledge can actually become an instrument to push God out of our world, rather than a source of awe and amazement at the Divine Designer. The world becomes very dark and bleak if it becomes limited to only what we can measure and understand.
My brief hospital experience made me more grateful for the gift of faith. It deepened my gratitude for those who taught me the true meaning of the Christmas miracle. I am not just thankful for knowing about the One born in Bethlehem, but actually for the opportunity to develop a friendship with the Lord of lords and King of kings.
I will also be grateful if the rest of Advent is not quite so exciting!