Reflections on the Year of Mercy - Part One

Casting Open the Doors of the Heart:
Lessons Learned in a Jubilee Year of Mercy

Written by Mary McCann Sanchez

The call went out loud and strong. In March of 2015 Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary Year of Mercy. “Let us allow God to surprise us,” he encouraged followers, for “God never tires of casting open the doors of his heart.” 

I had just opened a new door in my life as the Senior Director of Programs of Solidarity Bridge, a Catholic organization founded and staffed by lay men and women. Solidarity Bridge partners with committed Bolivian professionals to advance the health and well-being of persons with scant economic resources, particularly those seeking surgery. Working across continents, Solidarity Bridge and its Bolivian partner, Puente de Solidaridad, harness the energy, skills and compassion of highly specialized medical practitioners in the United States who join Bolivian specialists in valued relationships of professional service and training.

The results are impressive. More than 400 missioners have contributed their time, resources and skills to provide treatment or medical advice to nearly 62,000 patients over that past 16 years. Using equipment made available through industry donation, Bolivian and U.S. surgeons have teamed to perform 5,184 surgeries, including open heart surgeries, complex cancer surgeries, removal of brain tumors, spine surgery, reconstructive gynecologic surgeries and other surgeries not readily accessible in Bolivia. Every mission trip feeds into permanent programs run by Bolivian partners throughout the year.

There are many compelling reasons for collaboration in Bolivia. A culturally rich country, Bolivia has one of the highest poverty rates in the hemisphere, with direct consequences to the health of the population. Chagas disease, a parasitic infection transmitted by insects that inhabit mud walls and thatched roofs, is just one case in point. While Chagas is endemic to 21 countries, Bolivia is most severely affected, with some rural communities infected at a rate of 75 percent of the population. This disease can severely affect the patient’s digestive system or heart, requiring surgical treatment inaccessible to the poor.

As an educator with 30 years of work in Central America and in immigrant communities in the United States, I was drawn to this new role for a simple reason. I wanted a deeper understanding of Christ as healer. At the same time, I was thirsty for the “wellspring of joy, serenity and peace” that Pope Francis proclaimed, and motivated by his conviction that via mercy God’s love is revealed.

Nonetheless, opening a new door is a risk. At the threshold are doubts and questions. My previous commitments in Latin America were on-site and long-term. What is the magic – or perhaps the grace – that must happen in order for a medical mission to be productive, respectful, successful? How do even the most well-meaning caregivers avoid pitfalls of insensitivity that so often mar cross-cultural encounters? Is mercy a personal matter or does it inform justice? 

Six missions later and nearing the official closing of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I offer some of the valuable lessons I have learned:

There is strength in making the connection between one’s day-to-day work and the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

As laity, we live out our faith principally through family and work. The medical missioners I have been privileged to accompany bring unique histories of commitment to their profession and use their skills wisely. They approach the opportunity to serve a patient who might not otherwise receive specialized treatment with deference to the attending Bolivian surgeon. At the same time, Bolivian surgeons value professional interchange, technology transfer and collegial mentorship. The corporal work of mercy, in this case healing the sick, is an everyday passion they share. The surgery may last for several hours; the mission may extend for more than a week. But the work is not short-term: it is grounded in years of professional study, a deep passion for healing and the common language of science, even when spoken through an interpreter. 

Medical missioners are accessible to the patients’ families, and it is not uncommon to hear Solidarity Bridge missioners mention their own families. In most cases, communications technology keeps missioner parents close to their children. Parental acts of mercy --- offering counsel, bearing patiently in the face of difficulties --- reach not only the families at home but are shared in reflections within the mission team, which becomes a community. Bolivian partners strengthen that community by bringing their families to join in welcoming the mission team and bidding them goodbye as friends.

Pope Francis capsulizes this sense of groundedness, and celebrates the commitment made by lay people. In short, the mercy of God is not an abstract idea, but a concrete reality with which God reveals his love as of that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that this is a “visceral” love.

Casting Open the Doors of the Heart: Lessons Learned in a Jubilee Year of Mercy is a five-part blog series written by Mary McCann Sanchez, Senior Director of Programs. Mary joined the Solidarity Bridge staff in September 2015, and has been on six trips to Bolivia during her first year.  

All citations of the words of Pope Francis are from the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy.