Pope Francis has repeatedly invoked the image of a field hospital after a battle as a means of understanding the role of the Catholic Church in the modern world. He very much sees the Church which he currently shepherds as a place where all people should be welcome to receive spiritual care so that their spiritual wounds can be healed. I happen to like this image of the Church, and I think it can help us see a lot of very important things about how the Church ought to engage people who are hurting.
It can help us see that the costs of the battles are very high indeed as we survey the millions of wounded. Not only that, but it can also help us see that some ailments are best treated with time to rest, that others require a surgeon’s knife to dig out the bullet, and still others can only be treated by an amputation of dead or dying tissue. We are all wounded by sin, but not every wound of sin can be treated in the same way. There are those who want to treat almost every wound by surgery or amputation, and there are those who want to leave almost everyone as they are and just let them rest in order to heal.
This disagreement among the members of the Church about how to treat those in the field hospital of God has generated its own battles, and today those battles are growing ever more prominent. They crested during the years of Vatican Council II when clergy and laypeople who wanted to fill the Church with the Spirit of the Age decided that almost no one ever needed surgery or amputation, that if we but let people live with the bullet in them or the dead tissue on their limbs, then they will heal as we walk with them and show them compassion.
Prior to that, routine surgeries were taking place, and there was the rare case of amputation as well. The practice of spiritual medicine was fairly settled, and whether or not anyone agrees that the settled practices needed shaking up, they were indeed shaken up strongly in the years after the Council. Though the disciplines of the Church were made slightly less rigid in an official capacity, they were often thrown out entirely by those administering initial care in our field hospital Church.
Unsurprisingly, this change in practice on the front lines combined with the popular perception on the part of many wounded that they were not in fact wounded caused many to leave the field hospital. After all, if all you need is rest and the compassion of those who love you, then why stay in the field hospital for very long? It would have to be a stunningly beautiful field hospital indeed for anyone to stay when they believe they are not wounded. But the same people who insisted that we could do away with most surgeries and amputations also insisted that we didn’t need a beautiful field hospital, that it ought to be simple and functional, not thinking that perhaps its beauty was part of its function.
And so we find ourselves today surrounded by the wounded victims of the spiritual battles of life, convinced that they have no need to stay in the field hospital, and still carrying bullets within them or dead limbs around with them. They, admirably, have endured and sought to live on and make the best of the situation. And many of those who decided that it was unnecessary to perform surgeries or amputations for them have also sought to live on and make the best of the situation, by turns either proposing that we give them more compassion while not taking away their wounds or pretending that the wounds are not wounds, that the bullet lodged in our rib cage is a sign of good health.
Part of the high cost of the battle between those who want to eschew surgeries and amputations where they were routinely performed before and those who want to continue performing them in the same situations as before is that there are many walking casualties who walk off of the battlefield with their wounds untreated. These are people for whom I have great compassion, and I encourage them to visit the field hospital and ask for surgery because I want them to not just survive their wounds, but to thrive after their wounds are healed. Like Pope Francis, I am always happy to walk with them to see the Physician.
Unlike many who are just delighted by everything Pope Francis does, I have seen the Physician perform surgeries and amputations and been glad for it, especially when the surgery was performed on me. The pain of the surgery was always far better than the pain of living with my wounds. To my mind, the Physician exemplifies mercy in all that He does, whether His field hospital prescribes a bed rest or a surgery to open our hearts.
It is our hearts which are always the battlefields of the spiritual life, and we would do well to submit to the surgery we need rather than walking away from the Physician claiming that we are not wounded and do not need treatment, even if some of the folks working at the field hospital tell us that it’s not necessary. And to those folks who keep telling His patients that they do not need treatment or that their wounds are not actually wounds, I would ask that they would join me in walking with the patients to the Physician rather than sending them away from Him with the best of intentions.
Ultimately, we win the battles by bringing all who are wounded to the Physician so that He can heal them, and our field hospital cannot win those battles if we keep the patients from the Physician who is performing the surgeries and amputations so that they can heal properly and live abundantly.