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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP: How to be a hospitaller

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Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP blesses a man with holy water during the Lourdes Day Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 2 December. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP blesses a man with holy water during the Lourdes Day Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 2 December. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the Lourdes Day Mass for the Order of Malta at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 2 December 2023

Cappadocia is now one of Turkey’s hottest tourist destinations, alongside Istanbul, Ephesus and Gallipoli. Sitting atop the plateau of the Anatolian peninsula with its idyllic rock formations, including caves, cliffs and sweeping valleys, it now attracts millions each year.

But it’s not just a place of natural wonder. Cut into the rock are some the best-preserved churches and monasteries of the Patristic and Byzantine periods, with dazzling frescoes that somehow survived the Muslim destruction of most Christian art and architecture in Asia Minor.

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In its day Cappadocia was a hub of Christian theology and holiness. One family boasted Grandma St Macrina the Elder and her son St Basil the Elder. With his wife St Emelia, Basil had ten children, half of whom are recognized saints: Macrina the Younger, Naucratius the Hermit, Peter of Sebaste, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Also in their circle was St Gregory Nazianzen ‘the Theologian’, son of Sts Nonna and Gregory the Elder, and sibling to Sts Gorgonia and Caesarius. It was hard not to be a saint in fourth-century Cappadocia!

But three in particular were “Doctors of the Church”: Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa. They are known in the West as the Cappadocian Fathers, in the East as the Three Holy Hierarchs, and in Australia as Bazza, Nazza and Nissy. With their extraordinary command of philosophy, scripture and theology, they clarified Catholic teaching on Christ and the Trinity, fought off the Arian and Apollinarian alternatives, consolidated the creed, and became the standard of orthodoxy for centuries.

But they weren’t just intellectuals. They sought that happiness which we heard in Luke’s Gospel today (Lk 11:27-28) comes from hearing and keeping God’s word. They served as priests and bishops. They took seriously Christ’s command to care for the sick and poor. And this impulse occasioned a medical and civilisational milestone: the first ever hospital, built in Cappadocia in 365 AD.

It was Basil’s brainchild, as before ordination he had studied philosophy and medicine in Athens. He was convinced people needed skilled physicians and confessors, so both body and soul would be well cared for, ideally together. His brother Gregory was also a fan of scientific and medical expertise. This powerful conviction moved Basil to build an extraordinary complex on the outskirts of the city, including wards for every known disease, a leprosarium, pharmacy, convalescent home, hospice for the dying, poorhouse, pilgrim hostel, medical training facility and carers’ residences. The reputation of the hospital grew as it took in those regarded as hopeless cases and social outcasts.

When Bazza died, Nazza offered a moving funeral oration for his mate with a special mention of the hospital. He called it one of the wonders of the ancient world, “a new Jerusalem,” “a palace of mercy” and “heaven on earth.” Here the sick would experience the touch of Christ the Physician of bodies and souls, and the virtues of charity and trust would be practised daily. Gregory was convinced that this house of hospitality—or hospital—was Basil’s most successful effort at imitating Christ and would be one of his most enduring legacies.

Following this great example, the wealthy Roman widow Fabiola established a hospital in Rome and Pope St Symmachus built three more; St John Chrysostom founded one in Constantinople; the Empress Eudoxia one in Jerusalem; and St John the Almsgiver the hospital of Alexandria. The hospital movement was a rip-roaring success.

Thus, by the time Blessed Gerard de Martigues was appointed Rector of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem in 1080 and founded his chivalric order of Knights Hospitaller in 1099, there was already a long tradition of bringing together the cure of body and soul in one place and treating each person wholistically. At its heart was the belief that every human person was the image of God, with an inherent dignity undiminished by disease, disfigurement or debilitation. All God’s children would receive the hospitality of the Good Samaritan, if needs be until natural death and Christian burial.

The law which came into effect in New South Wales this week has a very different logic. For some, care of the sick, elderly and dying is all about preference fulfilment: each person should get the life and death they want or can afford. For others, it’s a matter of maximising pleasant experiences and minimising unpleasant ones. Either way, our new “Voluntary Assisted Dying” laws are not about medical care as understood in the Hippocratic tradition: in it, doctors pledge by all things sacred never to give anyone a poison, even if asked. Nor is it hospital care as understood in the tradition of Basil and Gerard, in which each person is loved and cared for till the end of their life, and that life and care never truncated. The old ethic of save-heal-care will now be replaced in certain cases with an ethic of kill-harm-neglect, and this will even be forced upon some who consider it ethically or professionally wrong.

Of course, not everyone that rocks up to the doctor or hospital asking to be killed will be given that assistance. So the new law must divide us into two classes: those whose lives are sacred and inviolable, who will be protected, cared for and discouraged from self-harm; and those whose lives are no longer so, and will be harmed or helped to self-harm. Whilst those who support these laws may be driven by mercy or respect, their reasoning is deeply flawed, and the effects on medicine, law and society will be terrible.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide don’t just undermine the conception of healthcare inherited from ancient Greeks, Jews and Christians, they also undercut our understanding of what it means to be human, to live in a community, and to relate well. Euthanasia encourages doctors and nurses to think some patients’ lives are not worth living, but it also encourages some patients, loved ones and society to think this way too. That the palliative care budget in this state has been cut at the very time that VAD has been introduced is surely no coincidence…

Perhaps most troubling, the experience of Canada, Holland, Belgium and the like, tells us that this “last resort” for the already dying will soon become a common way of dying: in Canada today someone now dies by euthanasia or assisted suicide every 40 minutes. At first only for the dying, VAD is soon extended to the chronically sick and disabled. At first only for the physically sick, it is broadened to the depressed, anxious or otherwise mentally sick, then to those who aren’t sick but lonely, dissatisfied, burdensome. At first for competent adults who choose it, it’s soon applied to infants, the demented and unconscious. Once we go down the path of deciding whose lives are inalienable and whose not, the latter category keeps expanding. Once we let ourselves be the judges, we get more and more comfortable with deciding some lives are unworthy of life.

For us knights and dames hospitaller, this past week’s law is a cause of deep lament. We are distressed that our community could go down this the path. But our response is never to write our society off. No, like Basil the Great and Blessed Gerard, we must narrate an alternate vision, in which every life is a gift and every person God’s image. This is our Order’s founding inspiration. By telling this story in word and deed, we most truly imitate Christ the Physician.

Our Lady of Philermos and of Lourdes, Help of the Sick, pray for us. Sts Luke, Cosmas and Damian, Patrons of Medics, pray for us. Sts Catherine of Siena, Camillus and Theresa of Calcutta, Patrons of Nurses, pray for us. Blessed Gerard and all holy hospitallers, pray for us.

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