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NEWTON -- Medical students, doctors and their relatives gathered at Sacred Heart Church on Oct. 13 for the annual White Mass sponsored by the Guild of St. Luke, a guild of Catholic physicians in the Boston area.
The White Mass honors and seeks God's assistance for people who work in health care professions. It is traditionally held close to the Oct. 18 feast day of St. Luke, patron saint of physicians.
The main celebrant was Msgr. Timothy Moran, chaplain of the Guild of St. Luke. In his homily, Msgr. Moran talked about the rich young man in the gospel reading from Mark 10.
In this interaction, Jesus is "trying to guide the desire of this young man to where true treasure is to be found," Msgr. Moran said.
In the Jewish culture of the time, the young man would be assumed to already have favor with God.
However, he said, the young man was "astute enough" to realize there was something more that he longed for and did not possess.
The rich young man left sad at the prospect of selling everything he owned, thinking of it in terms of giving something up in order to get a reward. But that, Msgr. Moran said, is not a guarantee of eternal life.
"It's neither in the possessing nor the dispossession of those goods that we enter that communion of mind and heart with God. It is God's own gift, God's own invitation," he said.
Msgr. Moran spoke of prioritizing relationships among distractions and demands for their attention, which can be a challenge for both priests and doctors. They cannot do so, he said, if they set aside God's gifts and do not renew their relationship with God. He concluded that they ought to "let that relationship guide and animate everything that we are and everything that we do."
The Mass was followed by dinner and a keynote presentation at Bishop MacKenzie Center adjacent to the church.
Former guild president Dr. Helen T. Jackson recognized guild members who had died or lost relatives in the past year. She also spoke about the history of the Guild of St. Luke, which was established in 1911 but was "dormant" from 1970 until 1990 when Cardinal Bernard Law urged Dr. Jackson to revive it.
Dr. Jackson presented the Martin De Porres Award to Dr. Lucy Bayer-Zwirello, Chief of Maternal Fetal Medicine at St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Brighton. Dr. David J. Ramsey, Vice President of the Guild, presented the Cosmos and Damian Award to James Agolia, a Harvard medical student attending the White Mass for the third year in a row.
Guild president Dr. John Barravecchio introduced the keynote speaker, John Garvey, president of the Catholic University of America, who spoke about "Ambiguity and Complexity" regarding moral issues.
Garvey drew a distinction between moral ambiguity, which suggests there is no objective truth, and moral complexity, which can impact Catholics' decision-making process.
Regarding moral ambiguity, he cited examples of stories in popular culture that promote liberal views. The 2016 film "Me Before You" portrays assisted suicide as a loving decision. The television sit-com "Modern Family," whose main characters include a homosexual couple raising an adopted daughter, advances the idea that new family structures are just as valid as "old-fashioned" ones. Stories such as these convey the message that feelings and intentions matter most.
"There is a right and wrong here that goes beyond circumstances or feelings or intentions, and our culture has lost sight of that," Garvey said.
He also spoke of how Pope Francis encourages Catholics to adopt a "position of mercy," and focuses on the need for evangelization in situations of moral complexity.
For instance, in a hypothetical Garvey raised about whether or not to support a relative's questionable decision, it should be remembered that shunning people to show disapproval of their choices "won't help them on their way to conversion."
"There are still right and wrong answers. The fact that they're hard doesn't mean that they're toss-ups. (Pope) Francis's recommendation to err on the side of charity doesn't excuse us from doing the hard work of trying to do the right thing. It simply means we must weigh these issues with a disposition of humility and ask for God's mercy when we miss the mark," Garvey said.
He concluded by making the point that "it is important for us as Catholics never to lose sight of the notion that there are right and wrong things, that what the Church has to teach us is something that we should always keep in mind in our practices. The notion of moral ambiguity is a notion that we as Catholics should have no business with. On the other hand, we have to be very careful about sorting every moral problem and every disagreement that we have into that category."
Garvey encouraged the attendees to approach such problems with humility, knowing that people of good will may come to different conclusions. He said having conversations about moral complexities, even with people who disagree, may help in seeking the right answers.
"It gave me a lot of food for thought," Mary Lou Godleski, wife of guild member Dr. John Godleski, told the Pilot.
"It's really refreshing to hear anybody (in the healthcare profession) who has a foundation in philosophical thought," said Jon Hoagstein, who is in his first year of Harvard's HST program.
He added, "I think it's a real unfortunate thing that a lot of times medical students have little to no foundation in thinking about moral philosophy."
Hearing someone speak on that, Hoagstein said, is "inspiring" because it is not a natural part of their training.
"It's powerful in multiple aspects, both professionally and personally," he said.