Q&A with Fr John Flader: Doctor a holistic pioneer

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Giuseppe Moscati, third from left sitting, with his first students. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Giuseppe Moscati, third from left sitting, with his first students. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“Dear Father, I am a medical student and a friend recently told me about St Giuseppe Moscati, an Italian physician and professor of medicine. I would like to pray to him for success in my studies. Can you tell me more about him?”

Giuseppe Moscati (1880-1927) was a physician, professor of medicine, and a pioneer in the field of biochemistry. He was canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1987 during the synod of bishops on the laity.

Giuseppe was the seventh of nine children born into an aristocratic Italian family. His father’s career as a magistrate led the family to settle in Naples. His father was very pious and even served Mass when the family was on holidays in his native region of Avellino.

Giuseppe’s decision to study medicine rather than law came when his older brother Alberto, a lieutenant in the artillery, fell from a horse in 1893 and suffered an incurable head injury. For years Giuseppe helped care for his injured brother at home.

When Giuseppe enrolled in medical school in 1897, the University of Naples had an openly agnostic, amoral, and anti-clerical atmosphere and so it was a difficult place for a young Catholic. But Giuseppe studied diligently and continued to practise his faith, gaining a doctoral degree with honours in 1903.

Dr Moscati practised medicine at the Hospital for Incurables in Naples and taught general medicine at the university.

He soon became a hospital administrator. He demonstrated extraordinary skill in diagnosing his patients’ ailments, attributed by some of his colleagues to his ability to combine traditional methods with the findings of the new science of biochemistry.

His approach was holistic, as seen in a letter he wrote to a young doctor who had been one of his students: “Remember that you must treat not only bodies, but also souls, with counsel that appeals to their minds and hearts rather than with cold prescriptions to be sent in to the pharmacist.” In another letter, to a student, he wrote, “Not science, but charity has transformed the world.” A flock of interns would follow Dr Moscati when he made his rounds at the hospital, so as to learn his techniques.

While dedicating the Church of St Giuseppe Moscati in the suburbs of Rome in 1993, Pope John Paul II described the doctor’s approach: “In addition to the resources of his acclaimed skill, in caring for the sick he used the warmth of his humanity and the witness of his faith.”
Giuseppe regarded his medical practice as a true apostolate, a ministry to the suffering.

Before examining a patient or engaging in research he would place himself in the presence of God and he would encourage his patients, especially those who were about to undergo surgery, to receive the sacraments.

He was very generous in attending to his patients’ temporal needs, treating poor patients free of charge and often sending someone home with an envelope containing a prescription and a 50-lira note.

On occasion, he risked his life to help others. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in April 1906, he voluntarily helped evacuate a nursing home in the endangered area, personally moving the frail and sick patients to safety minutes before the roof of the building collapsed under the weight of the ash. He also served beyond the call of duty during the 1911 cholera epidemic and he treated some 3,000 soldiers during World War I.

“The holy physician of Naples,” as he was called, might have pursued a brilliant academic career, taken a professorial chair and devoted more time to research, but he preferred to continue working with patients and to train interns.

On Tuesday, 12 April 1927, Giuseppe went to Mass and received Holy Communion, as he did every day, and then made his rounds at the hospital.

After a midday meal, he felt weary, lay down, and died peacefully. He was not yet 47 years old.

Giuseppe was beatified in 1975 and declared a saint by Pope John Paul II on October 25, 1987. His feast day is November 16.