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White Mass celebrates 'special vocation' of physicians

By Mark Labbe Pilot Staff
Posted: 10/28/2016

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Dr. James O'Connell, president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless, addresses physicians and medical students at the dinner following the White Mass sponsored by the Guild of St. Luke, Oct. 15. Pilot photo/Mark Labbe

BRIGHTON -- Physicians, dentists and medical students came together at St. John's Seminary in Brighton to attend this year's annual "White Mass" and to listen to a talk by president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, Dr. James O'Connell, Oct. 15.

Sponsored by the Guild of St. Luke of the Archdiocese of Boston, an organization of Catholic physicians, the White Mass celebrates the work they do on a daily basis.

Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley celebrated the White Mass in the chapel of St. John's Seminary.

In his homily, the cardinal spoke to the physicians, saying that he would venture to guess that they are aware of how special the gift life is.

Yet, he said "we are only stewards of that gift."

"Our faith teaches us that it's only God who can create and sustain life, and one of the really important aspects of your vocations as health workers, as Catholic health workers, is to be witnesses to the Gospels of Life," the cardinal said.

He called the medical profession a "special vocation," and noted the importance of defending life, "particularly when it's most fragile and most in need."

"You have been called by Christ to serve your brothers and sisters, to redeem their suffering, to ease their pain, and to bring them back to full health," said Cardinal O'Malley.

"Pope Francis has said God's name is mercy, God's face is the face of mercy, and we who are members of his Church must make that mercy present in our world. You who work in healthcare have such a special and privileged vocation to do just that," he said.

Following the Mass, a dinner was held, at which O'Connell spoke about his experiences working with the homeless.

He began by describing the beginnings of his career, and said that he had plans of becoming an oncologist. However, during his final year of medical school, he was asked to work full-time at the Pine Street Inn Clinic.

The clinic served homeless people, and had just received a grant to increase its operations. The grant established the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, and O'Connell joined it as the founding physician.

He said that he planned on staying there for only a year before continuing down that path of becoming an oncologist, but that never happened.

Instead, as he illustrated through a few personal stories of his work at the clinic, he quickly grew to love working with and providing assistance to the homeless. He has worked at the program for over 30 years, and is currently the organization's president.

"I think if I look back on my life now, I keep thinking I'm an accidental tourist on this, because I should have and I would have been an oncologist, but instead this little twist happened, and I actually have lucked into what I think is the best job I've ever had," he said.

"We take care of people who are the rough sleepers; the people who are living outside.... It's a great clinical practice. It's a little bit overwhelming and it's a little bit tense, but the people we serve are the people who are incredible grateful that we're there. And I realize that's a blessing, they really look at us like family, you know?" he continued.

O'Connell said he learned early on that he can't fix the problem of homeless, and it took him a while to "come to grips" with that.

Yet, he said, the homeless can still be helped, and he drew to mind the parable of the Good Samaritan.

"The real power of that Good Samaritan story is not that he just helped the person right there, but he helped him later and continued to help him when he made sure he was okay. It was a long continuation of a story... I think there is a lot in that that we could learn," he concluded.

Dr. Patrick Whelan, a rheumatologist at MassGeneral Hospital for Children, was one of the physicians who attended the White Mass.

He said he has often "been struck by how prominent the healing stories are in the Gospels," and, in particular, how Jesus is depicted as being personally invested "in the well-being of the individual."

"So, I feel like, in many respects, I found a lot of inspiration myself in being a Catholic, reading the Gospels," Whelan said.

Sam Poulin, a first year medical student at Tufts University, said that it was his first time attending the White Mass.

"It's just wonderful to be part of the Mass and to get to know some great people who are in touch with their Catholic faith," he said.

He said that the medical profession can be hectic, and the White Mass offers a relief from that.

"I guess in a field like this it's easy to get caught up -- it's very busy -- but to sort of have a moment to take a step back and stay in touch with your faith is really valuable," said Poulin.