UNDA School of Medicine Sydney Blessing of the Hands

27 Feb 2015

Introduction to the UNDA School of Medicine Sydney Blessing of the Hands
Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst, 27 February 2015

Welcome to tonight’s Blessing of the Hands ceremony for our first year students in the School of Medicine at the University of Notre Dame Australia, Sydney. As the new Archbishop of Sydney but also Adjunct Professor of Bioethics and Moral Theology in this University, it is a particular privilege to celebrate this ceremony for my first time. I understand that entry into this medical school is highly desired and therefore highly competitive, and it is a tribute not only to the University but to each of you that you are taking this first step together towards the profession of medicine.

I acknowledge the presence of: Prof. Hayden Ramsay, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor; Prof. Christine Bennett AO, Dean of the School of Medicine; Maree Whybourne of our Medicine Advisory Board; Sandy Lynch, Director of the Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society; Patrick Langrell, Chaplaincy Convenor; and the professors, staff, benefactors and friends of this medical school.

I am pleased to welcome Fr Matthew Solomon, the Administrator of this Parish of the Sacred Heart, Darlinghurst, who has agreed also to undertake chaplaincy here at the Darlinghurst site of the Sydney campus. So, from this year, I hope to increase the presence of the chaplaincy here on this site and its assistance to our staff and students.

Above all I welcome our first year medical students and their families and friends. 

Homily for the UNDA School of Medicine Sydney Blessing of the Hands
Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst, 27 February 2015

Google the phrase “Hand of God” and you get photos of hand-shaped astronomical phenomena, of Maradona’s infamous goal against England in the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup and of ET the cute alien touching fingers of an earthling boy. The last of these is of course deliberately evocative of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam – possibly the most famous painting of all time, recently restored, endlessly reproduced, and now the subject of many cheeky internet memes. Painted in 1511 or 1512 as part of his Genesis cycle for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it has a bearded God, the Ancient of Days, surrounded by His spiritual creation, and youthful man, brand new humanity, surrounded by material creation. Adam looks languorous, as if a lover just waking from sleep, as he gazes confidently at his Creator.

Instead of the images of God shaping the man out of clay or giving the lifeless figure mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that previous painters had used to represent the moment of humanity’s birth, Michelangelo chose to focus on the hands of God and man. As God stretches out his hand the man responds as if in a mirror image, declaring with the Book of Genesis that men and women are made in God’s image. Only a sliver of daylight separates God’s hand from Adam’s, showing both how close God is to us and yet transcendent.

Hands, of course, have great significance: friends shake hands, lovers hold hands, parents tickle and wash children with hands; we write, paint, play sport, make music, do manual labour, drive, and so much else with our hands. So when the handy Adam wakes as if from sleep, we know it won’t all be beer and skittles for him in the lifetime ahead. He has work to do with those hands: naming and taming creation and, once Eve enters the scene, filling it with humanity; after the Fall he will labour to feed and house himself and his family (Gen chs 1-3). We see this unfolding in the adjoining murals but already in this one the man shares in God’s image by having hands that will exercise a God-like creativity, dominion and freedom in creation.

Tonight we bless the hands of the University of Notre Dame’s first year medical students. Physicians of course are very hands-on people. In their work of healing and care, they use their hands in a myriad of ways. They will use them to greet and check-up, to write up prescriptions and patient records, to research and learn. Above all their hands are used to examine, operate, bind and salve the sick and wounded. Physicians’ hands are the instruments through which they exercise much of their professional skill in applying medical solutions to human need. So our first reading tonight, from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, or Sirach, exhorts people to honour their doctors, recognising their learning and the unceasing work of their hands, that through them health might extend across the world (Eccles 38:1-14).

Catholic Schools of Medicine are inspired not only by technical excellence and professionalism but by a divine mandate to heal in the name of Christ the Divine Physician. Medical care is not simply about achieving results, ticking off a checklist and seeing a certain number of patients per hour so as to maximise the takings of the practice or satisfy Mr Medicare. It is not to be driven by a merely biomechanical model or utilitarian calculus that ignores metaphysical or ethical concerns. There is something more, something divine, about healing. Our first reading says that healing is a royal gift from God mediated most often by doctors. Written well after the Hippocratic Oath, but very possibly under the Hellenising influence of the Graeco-Roman empire on the Jews of the second century BC, it echoes Hippocrates on this matter. Disease and illness are all too common in our broken world; yet God does not intend that we should suffer in this way. Healing a sign that sin and suffering and death were not the Creator’s original purpose and do not have the final say. Healing hands are like the hands of the Creator reaching out again towards humanity to restore it to God’s image, even if physicians can only ever reduce human frustration and postpone death, rather than abolish them.

There is a lesson in that to those beginning their journey into the medical profession: though medical healing is a god-like power, it has its limitations and must not go to our heads. People sometimes treat doctors as if they are gods; doctors sometimes behave as if they thought they were gods! The fact is, however, that they have their limits and must cultivate humility if they are to be truly great. Their craft requires hard work: as our first reading put it “there is no end to the doctor’s activities”. Medical students must likewise work very hard at acquiring knowledge, skills, habits, a whole mind-set that fits them for service and for contributing not only to the healing of hurting individuals but the healing of our broken world. Michelangelo’s sleepy Adam must awake to many needs and tasks.

Our Gospel tonight relates the famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:25-37). If Hippocrates’ Oath was the first pagan articulation of the nature and ethics of healthcare, and Ben Sirach’s Ecclesiasticus the first Jewish enunciation, this story is the first Christian code of healthcare ethics. Along with the example and mandate of Jesus Himself, this story has inspired the two millennia-old tradition of Christian health and aged care. As a result the Catholic Church is the oldest and by far the largest health and aged care provider in the world. In this country alone we now have around Catholic 10,000 hospital beds, 20,000 aged care places, and assist countless people through community services provided by religious congregations, parishes, diocesan CatholicCares, St Vincent de Paul and the like. The Church is also home to a great bioethical tradition cognisant of the human dignity of each patient whose rights must be protected from conception until natural death, a dignity acknowledged in the tiniest embryo at the beginnings of Adam’s life and in the oldest and frailest at life’s end. The University of Notre Dame’s Medical School in Sydney is an emanation of that same impulse to care in the context of respecting human dignity and accepting the divine mandate to be Good Samaritans.

So tonight our first year medical students at Notre Dame University gather to have their hands blessed as they begin their medical studies. This ‘sacramental’ experience reflects our humble awareness that we need the help of a force greater than ourselves if we are to achieve the healing we hope to bring and our determination to offer that care in the context of aspirations and ideals that go beyond the mundane pressures of the contemporary healthcare environment. Your hands are to give glory to God and to touch with reverence God’s image in your hurting neighbour. We ask that God the Healer will bless your hands – and your minds and hearts – as you embark on great learning and a great profession. God bless you all!