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A Saint’s Medical Ministry

In a chapel in the cathedral of Benevento, an ancient city in southern Italy, a marble statue commemorates the birth of St. Giuseppe Moscati. He was born in Benevento in 1880, the seventh of nine children in a devout Catholic family of noble lineage. His father served on the altar in a chapel of the Poor Clares, and their family was friends with Caterina Volpicelli, foundress of the Maids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and someone who emerged as an important spiritual advisor to Giuseppe.

When he was a boy, his older brother fell from a horse and needed prolonged medical attention, which led to Giuseppe’s interest in medicine. He eventually pursued that interest, receiving a doctorate from the University of Naples and then joining the staff of physicians at the Ospedale degli Incurabili (Hospital for the Incurables), where he took on duties as an administrator. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 1906, Giuseppe rushed to a facility in Torre del Greco just a few miles from the mouth of the volcano and evacuated every last patient as the building began to crumble. He was a leader in combating the cholera outbreak in Naples in 1911, and he was a pioneer in experimenting with insulin to treat diabetes. 

The film “St. Giuseppe Moscati: Doctor of the Poor” dramatizes his life and provides insight into the principles that guided him to view the practice of medicine as a ministry of God. A poignant sequence in the film depicts Giuseppe’s trying to come to terms with the death of Aniello, a street child in his care. In a state of grief, Giuseppe kneels before a statue of a shrouded and entombed Christ and repeatedly pleads, “Show yourself. Show yourself. Show yourself.” There is silence in response to his pleas, yet Giuseppe’s countenance evinces a realization. The next scene shows him standing over a patient who looks very much like the entombed Christ as he lies in bed with a bandage over his face. Giuseppe kneels before this man and removes his bandage almost as though to reveal the face of Christ.

In the following scene, Giuseppe tells a sister working at the hospital, “Today I realized something: Jesus lives in every sick person.” And later, he says, “If I were only to treat the diseases, I would be destined for defeat. I would think of science’s limitations and feel helpless. I realized that with Aniello’s death. Being a doctor is a lot less and a lot more. I want to give my whole strength, my whole self.”

Giuseppe refused to charge poor people for their treatment, sometimes actually giving them money along with prescriptions. He took a vow of chastity and never married, being known today as the patron saint of bachelors as well as those rejected from religious orders. A powerful intercessor, he was considered a miracle worker even in his lifetime, and he called on his patients to utilize their faith and the sacraments in seeking cures.

He was a daily communicant and received the Eucharist on the morning of the day he died at the age of 46. His life story is a testament to the powerful influence faith can have on the practice of medicine. Faith can imbue physicians with the fire to know that a profound encounter with Christ awaits them with each patient they treat; and this, in turn, can inspire those patients to have faith on their journey towards healing. 

 

For free copies of the Christopher News Note WISDOM FROM THE SAINTS, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org