What does faithful presence mean for Christians in the context of medical education? This question arises from the main theme of James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World. He articulates an approach to culture that reflects Christ’s incarnation, an approach characterized by faithfulness in contrast to accommodation and witness to the culture in contrast to domination. How is this approach applied in different cultural and professional contexts? As a medical student who is early on in his path to becoming a physician, this question is important to me. I came to medical school after many years of being in vibrant Catholic communities. I quickly became aware that, in contrast to my previous communities, my beliefs were not the dominant worldview or moral compass. This difference of belief has rarely resulted in hostility toward my faith, yet the recognition of difference always magnifies the role of belief in one’s life and calls for justification of that belief to others and to oneself.
How do I effectively and faithfully communicate the Gospel to those who may be interested in the ways that my faith informs my approach to medicine? How do I communicate the Gospel in situations when my religious convictions put me in opposition to the dominant beliefs of my peers and institution? These outward facing challenges and opportunities both arise from and create a challenge of justification internally: What do I believe? I have always encountered a tension between the virtues of fortitude and prudence. All physicians need these virtues, but Christians embedded in medical institutions require them on another level: how do we courageously and gracefully embody the Gospel while prudently navigating institutional structures and relationships? Ultimately, these challenges and opportunities manifest themselves in two ways: our inward-facing efforts to build a community of like-minded believers, and our outward-facing efforts to engage with our peers who do not share our faith. Three passages from Scripture come to mind as guides: Acts 28:22, Matthew 18:20, and 1 Peter 3:15.
“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” -Matthew 18:20
As Christians, we are called to love everyone we encounter. My non-Christian friends enrich my life in innumerable ways. However, it is important to have a community of believers to challenge and support us in faith. This involves a cycle of giving and receiving. I have been blessed with faculty mentors who serve as important witnesses to the Christian mission, and in turn, I have been privileged to co-lead our group of Christian medical students, Pritzker Christian Fellowship. The encouragement that I have received has given me the strength to encourage my peers. It has been enlightening and comforting to hear the struggles of my peers and to share my struggles; the shared pursuit of growth builds community and deep friendships. Sometimes, this community is small. I am a firm believer that great things often begin as small endeavors. Consistency is key. We have a Bible study that is sparsely attended, but its benefit does not derive from the number of people it reaches. Rather, it is worthwhile because it fulfills Christ’s statement above. Although poor attendance can be a discouragement, the study remains a source of spiritual renewal for the few that attend and will attract others if it is genuine. Even so, it is not sufficient to have a community of believers around us if we do not cultivate our own relationship with Christ. Christ reveals us to ourselves. Many of my peers share my experience of having a poor prayer life during medical school. If we seek community, we must first prioritize the community of the Trinity. It is from there that all love and communion flows, so even amid our busy-ness, our relationship with Christ must be paramount.
“But we would like to hear what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” -Acts 28:22
The verse above comes from the Jews in Rome as they addressed the Apostle Paul. Their statement identifies Christians as a “sign of contradiction.” I do not believe that this is the primary way in which Christians should seek to be viewed in the world. However, in following Paul’s example of lovingly preaching the truth, we will sometimes be a “sign of contradiction.” For medical students and physicians, this often occurs in the context of advocating an unpopular ethical stance. It could also come from adhering to beliefs that are perceived as “unscientific.” In my own experience, I have found that these battles must be chosen prudently, but that we must be willing to take chances. I met the predictable opposition when I have taken these chances. Even so, they have led to unexpected conversations that have provided fertile ground for dialogue and even friendship. They are also opportunities to learn. Dialogue and conflict inevitably lead back to internal conflict and force us to examine the consistency of our lives. I am continually inspired by my classmates’ pursuit of justice and their reflection of the Christian mission, whether intended or not. God gives us opportunities to witness, and He teaches us through them. Sometimes this involves initiative on our part, and sometimes it involves accepting the challenges that come our way. We can take comfort in the fact that Truth is a person (John 14:6) and that we can always depend on Him.
“Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you” -1 Peter 3:15
While we sometimes are “signs of contradiction”, a defensive posture is not ideal. If we are right in what we claim about the Christian life, it should be joyful and attractive. The verse above mentions “giving a defense,” but notice that it is a defense of hope. Our lives should generate genuine interest, and we should be ready to give an explanation. Medical institutions are academic environments filled with questioners. Young medical students in particular encounter existential questions in the face of death and illness. It is in this common endeavor towards truth that the Christian life and witness can shine. I was fortunate to start a religious diversity initiative in which students were given the opportunity to discuss “big questions” about life. These discussions were not evangelical in nature; they were an opportunity for students of all beliefs (or none) to question together. However, the answers that Christian students gave flowed from the Gospel. In situations like this, Christians have the opportunity to articulate a reason for our belief. As in so many things, relationship is foundational. I believe that we can engage everyone we encounter in some way, but that the setting of friendship is often the most fruitful. We seek friends for the sake of friendship itself, yet friendship is also the best way to share our lives with others, including our life in Christ.
As a young medical student, I am still relatively untouched by burnout. However, I do believe that as Christians we ought to feel at home in medicine. Our faith teaches us in a special way that the human body reflects God’s goodness. A central tenet of our faith is the Incarnation, God taking on human flesh in Christ. I have been privileged to engage in medical outreach to those experiencing homelessness through a group at my institution. The outings we make to encampments have been some of the most fulfilling experiences during my time in medical school. I hope that this serves as an example of Christian witness, but I do not do it primarily for that reason. We are called to serve, but we also receive. Our faith elevates these experiences to a new level: I see Christ in those I serve on the streets, and I do my best, whether explicitly or implicitly, to be a Christian witness to them.
Medical students have the opportunity to see Christ and the beauty of His hand in creation, whether in the intricacies of the human body during dissection or in the patients that we serve. In this way, our patients and our work are “sacraments” to us. In the same way, we are called to be sacraments to our patients, peers, and institutions. Gaudium et Spes, the Catholic Church’s document on the approach of the Church to the modern world, encourages all believers to do just this: “To promote [the communication of the Gospel to the diverse cultures of people and situations in the modern world], especially in our days, the Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed with different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers.” As physicians and physicians in training, we are part of this call. We must use our special skills and circumstances to embody the Gospel and to bring it into our unique circumstances.
Hunter, James Davison. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity Today. New York, Oxford University Press, 2010.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition. Oxford University Press, 1999.
Paul VI. Gaudium et Spes. December 7, 1965. Papal Archive. The Holy See. http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html
About the author:
Will grew up in Deephaven, Minnesota and attended the University of Notre Dame where he majored in biochemistry and minored in theology. Following his undergraduate studies, he did two years of post-baccalaureate research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota where he was very involved in the local Catholic young adults community. Will matriculated at the University of Chicago MSTP program in 2019 where he is currently in his MS2 year.