Samaritanus Bonus and the hope of ‘remaining’

Aaron Lambert

To those who care for the sick, the scene of the Cross provides a way of understanding that even when it seems that there is nothing more to do there remains much to do, because ‘remaining’ by the side of the sick is a sign of love and of the hope that it contains.”

– Samaritanus Bonus, Sept. 22, 2020

Watching somebody suffer in sickness, let alone a dear friend or loved one, counts as one of life’s most difficult challenges. And yet, to remain near someone in their suffering is an act of profound love that brings about indelible comfort in their darkest of hours.

For palliative care doctors like Natalie Rodden, this act of “remaining” with those who are sick and suffering lies at the very heart of her profession. Rodden leads the palliative care team at Centura-St. Anthony North Health Campus in Westminster, which consists of her, a social worker and a chaplain. In her role, she typically works with patients who are dealing with chronic illness and their family, helping to provide relief from the symptoms for the patient and relief from the stress for the family.

“We say in palliative care that we hope for the best but we prepare for the worst,” Rodden told the Denver Catholic. “We try to help patients and families work through this.”

Coming from the Latin word palliare, which means “to cloak” or “to shield,” palliative care doctors like Rodden are trained in helping to support patients and their families through serious illness, whether it be a chronic disease such as cancer or other serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

“Palliative Care and hospice is really about accompaniment, about walking with people and not abandoning them,” Rodden said. “We acknowledge the dignity of the person and work to love them in a way that acknowledges their whole personhood, having an approach that includes physical, emotional, spiritual health, and talking about the interplay between the spiritual and the physical, particularly at the end of life.”

‘A huge hug from the Church’

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently issued a letter that beautifully explains the practice of palliative care and its mission to accompany and care for those who are suffering. Samaritanus Bonus: On the Care of Persons in the Critical and Terminal Phases of Life, takes its name from the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“This document as a palliative care doctor feels like a huge hug from the Church,” Rodden said with a smile. “It’s not only a beautiful description of our theology and our understanding of the sanctity of life and the redemptive nature of suffering, it goes further to provide practical applications in our current cultural and societal times of where we where we live and how to apply those principles in today’s culture and today’s medical technology that exists.”

Natalie Rodden leads the palliative care team at St. Anthony’s North Health Campus in Westminster. The Vatican’s recently issued Samaritanus Bonus letter, which details the critical need for palliative care, felt like a “huge hug from the Church” for Rodden. (Photo provided by Centura Health)

Samaritanus Bonus serves as a powerful affirmation of the essential practice of palliative care, especially when it comes to upholding the dignity of those who are suffering from a critical or terminal illness. It describes palliative care as “an authentic expression of the human and Christian activity of providing care, the tangible symbol of the compassionate ‘remaining’ at the side of the suffering person.” The letter also reiterates the Church’s teachings against euthanasia, which the document states is a “crime against human life” and an “intrinsically evil act, in every situation or circumstance.” 

“As a Catholic palliative doctor who witnesses a lot of suffering and is around sick and dying people, a lot more probably than a regular person, [Samaritanus Bonus] was an immensely consoling reminder as to why this work is so important,” Rodden said. “It redoubled my motivation and my passion for being there, for wanting to be truly present at the bedside, for the privilege of walking with people and express that this is a person loved by God, created by God. What a gift it is to be with them and their families during the time when they might be nearing the end of their earthly life.”

A call to serve and love

Originally from the Louisville, Kentucky area, Rodden relocated to Colorado in 2016 after accepting her current position with St. Anthony’s. For a palliative care doctor, the timing was quite interesting: As Rodden recalls it, “I took my palliative boards on a Monday, which was the last test of 12 years of school. And then on Tuesday, the next day, physician-assisted suicide became legal [in Colorado].”

When she entered medical school, Rodden was originally interested in becoming an oncologist. It was during her residency rotations at a cancer center, however, that Rodden gained deeper insight into the kinds of suffering people have to endure when dealing with something like a cancer diagnosis, which began to lead her down a different path.

“I think palliative care kind of chose me,” she said. “I realized that so much of patient suffering was beyond just managing with chemotherapy. We were forgetting who the person was behind the cancer diagnosis.”

In addition to helping patients and families better cope with their situation, Rodden also serves as an advocate for the patient and helps to facilitate excellent communication between them and their families. 

I could not do this work without my faith. It’s God calling me to serve and love him through this work.”

Natalie Rodden

“I think you go to medical school to fix and to cure, and I think it kind of flips it on its head when you think about the patients I care for, it cannot be fixed or cured many times,” Rodden explained. “It was really a philosophical switch to think about, ‘well, maybe I can’t cure them, but I can help to reduce suffering in whatever form that it may show up and meaningfully connect with these people to guide them toward healing, despite those things we can’t change.’

“I’ve seen how much relief that a palliative consultation can give to a family and their loved ones who might feel so overwhelmed and desperate and intimidated by navigating the health care system and all that’s happening to them in their health,” Rodden continued. “It’s a place of much darkness, I feel, for a lot of people. I tell my team that we go to work and we may encounter a family on the worst day of their life, and it’s another day of work for us. I think God has thankfully given me a lot of inner joy, and I’ve always had a gift of faith, too. I could not do this work without my faith. It’s God calling me to serve and love him through this work.”

A crucial need during COVID

Earlier this year, when the initial wave of COVID-19 began to overwhelm Colorado hospitals, Rodden’s work became even more crucial. Due to COVID-19, Rodden has been seeing patients she wouldn’t normally see. The nature of the virus and the fact that it can be dangerous to people of all ages, regardless of health background, makes for a tough reality check in people – Rodden included.

The rise of COVID cases in the spring and the current spike facing Colorado makes Rodden’s role as a palliative care doctor even more crucial, especially because she is seeing many patients who she wouldn’t normally see. (Photo provided by Centura Health)

“For a lot of these patients, they are previously healthy. It’s very different than my typical patients I see in palliative care who have had chronic illnesses for many years and are not a stranger to the health care system,” Rodden explained. “For a lot these patients and their family members, their only exposure to hospitals might be through television shows or what the media is portraying right now. They don’t know what it what it means to be connected to a ventilator.”

It’s in these moments and others like them that Rodden has the opportunity to live out the principles of love, compassion and care outlined in Samaritanus Bonus. As the uncertainty of the pandemic brings new challenges to society with each passing day, doctors have perhaps one of the toughest jobs. However, like many healthcare workers, Rodden knows that she’s right where she’s supposed to be.

“A lot of us are exhausted, but we wouldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” she said. “It’s why we went into health care, is to be like helping at a time like this.” 

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!