Sister of Mercy, Mary Haddad, is President and CEO of the Catholic Health Association in the United States. With a background in education, social work and healthcare, Sr Mary says she is privileged to serve the three “essential ministries of the Church.”
In an interview with Vatican News, Sr Mary shared how the Catholic Health Association (CHA) participates actively in the healthcare issues present in the United States, and spoke about the pivotal role of women religious in this field.
Why religious life and why the Sisters of Mercy?
I like to say that my call is a coming to clarity about God’s movement in my life. I was taught by the Sisters of Mercy in grade school. It was only in that foundational grade school experience that I met the Sisters of Mercy. Once I began the process, I was committed. A dear friend of mine, a Sister of Mercy, has always said, “The reason you enter is not the reason you stay.” That has been a continual theme for me — that our call is really dynamic and our response should be as well. So it’s given me an opportunity to have multiple experiences throughout my religious life.
Concerns the CHA is addressing
Our work is guided by Catholic social teaching. We have a particular focus on human dignity, the common good, and are concerned for those who are most vulnerable. We believe that in order for a person to thrive and to flourish in their community, they have to be healthy. And so, we want to ensure that everyone has access to affordable health care. That has been our priority, along with protecting life and ensuring conscience protection.
Covid has really shone a bright light on many of the concerns we know have been with us for quite some time:
• The incidences of racism we saw here in the United States with the murder of George Floyd impelled us to look at health inequities — our goal being to eliminate healthcare disparities in access, in quality, and in services.
• We’ve looked at the behavioral and mental health needs that have increased dramatically since Covid. Pre-Covid there were great incidences of suicide and other mental health related issues, that exacerbated again, because of the experience of many people feeling removed, and isolated during this time.
• Care of our Seniors, our most vulnerable. We feel that has been a significant call for us now — to look at new models of long-term and continuing care for our aged.
• Palliative care — how we manage chronic disease, and how we walk with individuals throughout their life cycle.
• As we moved into these areas, we also recognized more fully the impact that environmental and social factors have on one’s health. And so we framed what we call the “social determinants of health”: that a person has safe housing, gainful employment, access to healthy food.
• We’ve opened our eyes to the call to the sustainability of our earth and have been working diligently on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ Action Platform. A priority for us has been that our health systems be committed to being net zero on carbon emissions in the next 15 to 20 years.
CHA and the debate on arms possession
We talk about it as a crime issue — but it’s a public health issue. We have seen the rate of murders increase in the United States by 75% over the past 10 years. It’s unconscionable. For children under the age of 19, firearm-related deaths overtook car accidents as a leading cause of death. This is not just about crime. It’s about health and so we’ve been advocating, as many others have, to reverse this growing trend in our country — looking at requiring background checks, doing public health research on morbidity and mortality prevention, banning the sale of assault-style weapons, temporarily prohibiting access to purchasing a gun for anyone who’s deemed to be at harm to themselves or to someone else, and of course, banning the purchase of high-capacity ammunition magazines. There’s no call for these to be available to the general public.
Our own healthcare providers are now at risk because of senseless gun violence. Whether someone coming into the hospital with a gun, or into a doctor’s office — we have had incidences of death and injury because of that. Not only do we have our health providers and our frontline workers coming off of the pandemic where they have been so challenged because of the stress that they have had to endure through this whole process, but now they’re being faced with their own fear of injury by going to work every day.
So gun violence is really a profound health crisis. It’s an economic crisis and it is a moral crisis. The stats are showing that approximately $2.8 billion are spent on inpatient and hospitalization emergency care related to gun violence. That’s an extraordinary amount of resources going to care for the impact of an issue that can be resolved.
Women religious at the root of Catholic healthcare
This has been in our DNA. When the sisters came to this country in 1727 — the French Ursulines landed in what was soon to be New Orleans — they really came to care for their communities. They didn’t come to provide healthcare; they came to provide spiritual care, and any needs of the community. And these ministries have evolved from that desire to serve the whole. So, the concept of whole-person care was really, I think, the genesis of Catholic healthcare in this country. Sisters really started the model of insurance. Oftentimes people look at women religious and we look at Catholic healthcare — they provide the charity works, they’re only there to provide the service. But we know we have a great history of women who were entrepreneurs. They knew how to create models of service that were effective and allowed us to provide the care for our communities as we were able to manage resources that were most needed in order to continue that service. So we stand on the shoulders of some brilliant men and women. As a woman religious I take great pride in the history of religious life throughout the world and the works that have been done. And I know that there tends to be a focus on diminishment. And I think that it is imperative that we look at this as an opportunity to continue to respond to the movement of the Spirit in our world today, and what is being called forth, in terms of service, of all of God’s people, not just religious, but laity as well.
By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp