The NHS and religion

In the midst of the NHS’ obvious struggles, Frank Gelli asks what religious bodies could do to help save the NHS

What does the future hold for Britain’s beloved National Health Service? Many warn of an impending crisis. They believe the pressures are such that the NHS will not survive in its current form till 2023. The political debate rages on, often acrimoniously. Time to think outside the box. What if religious bodies could help? Here are two outstanding examples from the Christian tradition.

The Hospital Brothers of St John of God operate in 50 countries, with 400 hospitals and medical centres, looking after the sick and the needy. Their founder, John, born in 1495, was a Portuguese soldier who had led a disordered life till he was about forty. After experiencing an intense religious conversion, John saw his vocation was to look after the sick and the destitute. With the support of pious people, he hired a house in Granada, harbouring and caring for all sorts of needy people, including tramps and prostitutes. That was the humble beginning of the worldwide Order of Charity, named after John, later made a saint and surnamed ‘of God’, alluding to his burning love for suffering humanity.

Like many holy persons, John had to suffer ignorance and prejudice from right-minded folks. Accused by a bishop of having sheltered idle beggars, he answered: ‘Christ came to do good to all, even to the sinners and the lost. They are my brothers, because I too am a sinner.’ Indeed, ‘Do good, brothers!’ became the motto of John’s religious community.

Worn out after ten years of hard service in his hospital – he often carried around the sick on his back – John fell ill. The whole city was in tears. John died on his knees, while at prayer. Today his community of medical and paramedical workers continues the founder’s good works. The Brothers operate alongside state structures, as well as local healthcare services. In under-developed countries, they run centres providing assistance for the mentally ill, AIDS and Alzheimer sufferers. They also run rehabilitation programmes for drugs and alcohol addicts. Nor do they neglect to point to Heaven. In an increasing materialistic world, love of neighbour and love of God are inextricably linked.
My second example comes from Italy. Camillus de Lellis, founder of the Ministers of the Sick, also called ‘Camillians’, was born in 1550. Like many young men he joined the Army to escape grinding poverty. While there he became addicted to the terrible vice of gambling. Having lost everything, he was reduced to working as the lowest labourer. God’s grace reached out to him, however, because Camillus heard a sermon that changed his life. Forsaking gambling, he sought to become a monk but a lifelong running sore in his leg prevented him. So, he struck out on his own, serving the sick in Rome’s St James Hospital for the incurable. His zeal, affection and piety shown to the wretched patients got him the job of hospital manager. His vision was to found a community of nursing priests, also including care for the dying. Despite his own bodily infirmities, he succeeded.

It was risky being sick in Camillus’ times. Hospital conditions were often primitive. In some cases dying patients were carelessly buried while still alive. We learn of a man who was found walking around in the burial vault when the next corpse was brought in! Plagues also were frequent. Camillus had his nurses labouring in the midst of pestilences to relieve suffering, regardless of personal peril. Many indeed died while relieving the sick.

Camillus’ project was to revive Christ’s own ministry to the sick, especially the most needy. One of the instructions the Saint gave to his nurses was to offer additional, loving solicitude, comfort and assistance to the gravely ill and the dying. He told his disciples to combine prayer and care and also to encourage patients to have faith. The love of God had to be demonstrated in practice, both for the carer and for the patient. If a nurse failed in proving that, Camillus said, he was like ‘a diamond ring without a diamond set in it’.
What is a Camillian religious worker today? He or she receives an education in healthcare. Camillians may be doctors, nurses, x-ray technicians or physiotherapists. They may work in a modern hospital or a hut but as a rule they share a community life – live and work as ‘a team’. Men and women all take vows of evangelical poverty. That does not mean indigence but a simple life untrammelled by the pursuit of riches. They affirm not just the alleviation of pain and care for sickness but also for its prevention. The promotion of health, both physical and spiritual, is their key mission. Moreover, SOS medical teams fly in to assist victims of natural and man-made disasters. They intervene to bring relief and to prevent disease from spreading. ‘Living angels of mercy’, some have called them.
Could the models of caring communities like the Hospital Brothers and the Camillians inspire the contemporary Church into practical, novel ways to help? Something that would not replace the NHS, no, but supplement the services offered by the State? I believe it should.

The Muslim tradition also has much to offer. The hospital is a key feature of Islamic culture, along with the water, fountains and baths required for both religious and hygiene purposes. Muslims always considered it a religious and a moral obligation to treat and minister to the sick and the suffering, regardless of status or wealth. Thus, hospitals in Islamic lands had many functions – from centres of medical treatment to places where patients could rest and recover from illness or distress. Furthermore, if an aged and infirm person had no family, the hospital would care for them.

Where did the money come from? Many hospitals in Islam existed thanks to money from the State but also from funds provided by waqfs, religious bequests. A waqf is an endowment of property held in trust and used for charitable purposes. The income from the waqf paid for the costs, maintaining the hospital and its services. A patient who was left invalid or incapacitated could even be paid a regular sum of money after being discharged, for his upkeep. Thus, this is a valuable healing model the Muslim communities could contribute to the national life.

Is it all a matter of philanthropy, love of humankind, practical benevolence? There are many secular organisations which do that and good luck to them. Still, philanthropic capitalism is not enough. Given its skewered economic system, it creates new problems. Besides, it is vital to remember that charity or love of neighbour in the name of God is different from mere secular philanthropy. Because it is rooted in transcendence. In God’s divine revelation as disclosed to Man.

Of course, a critic could argue that it is primarily the State who has a duty to provide proper healthcare for its citizens. By setting up subsidiary, faith-based institutions and instruments would we be diverting attention from the real task? It is true that the capitalist economy and the social system it fosters are in deep crisis. Yet we cannot wait for the revolution or any ‘round the corner’ utopia. People are sick and are suffering here and now. And that is where help is sorely needed – here and now.


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