Most canonized saints, understandably, have been priests or nuns. Most of them, also, lived years ago, even centuries ago. But Pope John Paul II has demonstrated a desire to canonize more holy lay persons, especially those who have lived in recent times. Research of their lives may be more difficult to accomplish, but the Holy Father knows well that today’s Catholics can find in contemporary lay saints more relevant models to follow.
One such person was St. Joseph Moscati, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1987. He was a physician, a research scientist, a medical professor, and the chief of staff of a large urban hospital.
The Bible occasionally records slighting opinions of medics. On the other hand, the Old Testament Book of Sirach testifies to their importance. “Hold the physician in honor,” Sirach advises, “for he is essential to you, and God it was who established his profession.” (38:1).
Giuseppe Moscati found in medicine a true and a holy vocation.
Born in Benevento, Italy, Giuseppe (Joseph) Moscati was raised in nearby Naples and there completed his medical studies.
In past centuries a medical education was not particularly demanding. Not so in our century, when it has become intensely scientific. Dr. Moscati appreciated medicine as both science and art. As a science it requires constant research to discover better means of healing. As an art, it demands the gentle application of the best remedies to ailing patients.
Moscati felt most at home in the sickroom; but realizing the importance of scientific research, he gave a proportionate amount of his time to medical study and teaching. He accepted a lectureship in the local Institute of Physiological Chemistry; and his 32 published scientific writings show him to have been a scholar well acquainted with the current pathological literature in Italian, English, French and German.
By choice, however, Joseph preferred bedside work. He welcomed as “a sublime mission” his appointment to the post of Chief Physician in the Naples Hospital for the Incurable.
In Moscati’s day, science and faith were widely thought to be irreconcilable. For him, they were inseparable. Apparently he was nagged in this matter by some of his agnostic colleagues, for in 1922 he wrote in his personal log, “Love truth; and if the truth costs you persecution, accept it; if torment, bear it. And if you should have to sacrifice yourself and your life for truth, be brave in sacrifice.” So he went on with his work, at pains to prove his point by serving to the best of his ability all whom he treated.
From his morning Mass and Communion, therefore, until late at night, Dr. Moscati spent himself utterly or his beloved sick. The poor he treated without recompense, paying for their medicine himself in case they could not afford it. Realizing the spiritual factor in illness, he often recommended that his patients turn to prayer and to the sacrament of penance as remedies sometimes even more important to recovery than physical medication.
“Fatigue, with no stop, no rest, no breath” – so, according to Dr. Felix D’Onofrio, his successor and biographer, ran the dedicated career of Dr. Joseph Moscati. Indeed, the doctor literally wore himself out in the care he gave to the sick. When he died at only 47, the great turnout at his funeral indicated the high regard that he had earned among Naples’ rich and poor alike.
Today’s physicians and scientists, in an era of complex medical questions, can find in St. Joseph Moscati a stirring illustration of how to blend sanctity with expertise. The rest of us can learn, too, how we can love God and neighbor heroically, even in the confusing world of today.
–Father Robert F. McNamara