By Mary McCann Sanchez, Senior Director of Programs at Solidarity Bridge
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:
1. 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.
2. Be at peace if you travel.
Undeniably, medical needs abound in my community at home. Adequate access to health care continues to be a privilege in the United States. Medications are out of reach for all too many individuals. Insurance plans continue to limit, squeeze and exclude some, even while they benefit others.
It is not necessary to cross borders to serve. There is no spiritual or corporal work of mercy that cannot find its place close to home. Yet, my experience of mission has taught me that voluntary displacement from the comforts -- and problems -- of home can serve to generate insight and appreciation. The striking diversity and beauty of Bolivia and the evocative sounds of its panpipes fill me with the beauty of God’s creation and invite me to co-create joy. At the same time, the extensive nature of poverty in the Southern Hemisphere, rich in natural resources, provokes questions that guide my spiritual quest at home and --- when I am at my best --- lead me to seek justice.
Pope Francis tells us that a primary task, especially at a moment full of great hopes and signs of contradiction, is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy by contemplating the face of Christ. I see the suffering Christ in the doorways of hospitals in Bolivia as an imperative just as compelling as the growingly familiar presence of Christ under highway bridges in Chicago. Solidarity teaches me that I cannot ignore either.
And the journey is part of a tradition. The practice of pilgrimage, Francis tells us, has a special place in the Holy Year...Life itself is a pilgrimage, and the human being is a viator, a pilgrim travelling along the road, making his way to the desired destination.
3. Contemplation helps us as we determine our path.
There are interminable details on mission trips to heal the sick. Solidarity Bridge seeks to equip hospitals, knowing that tools and instruments in the hands of a healer can save lives. Staff are consumed with the details of logistics, regulations, transportation, missioner needs. Doctors, nurses and technicians feel the tension of adjusting to a new venue, the expectations of excellence and conditions beyond their control.
Aware of the intensity, we seek spaces for reflection. Rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, Solidarity Bridge missions respectfully welcome persons of all creeds. We gather each morning in silence and then share the Word.
The quiet that follows contemplation can be powerful. One morning after the candlelight of morning reflection dimmed and the lingering tone of the gong diminished, the doctor sitting next to me said softly, I need to be centered today. Otherwise, how will I perform surgery? I did not ask if she prays at home or how she achieves the confidence enter into the spaces of pain in another’s being. I did not comment on what I perceived as courage. But I was glad that she shared that thought in prayer with me, and I found myself at peace with the tasks of the day.
Francis says it simply. We need to constantly contemplate the mystery of mercy.
4. Solidarity helps us overcome cynicism.
Pope John Paul II taught us that solidarity is “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good.” Despite flashy sound bytes and claims that nearly every deal can be a “win win,” the stark inequities that we observe on mission and the economic and social constraints that limit access to health can fuel hopelessness. Healers, however, cannot despair. At the time of surgery, they put away all kinds of concerns that are part of a not-perfect medical world. Administrative burdens must take the backseat to the patient entrusted to their care.
But the problems are real. In the context of transferring technology to what are often called “third world” countries, we can become burdened by the frustration of “planned obsolescence” of some equipment, when the emergence of new technology means that replacement pieces for older models are no longer available. We are aghast at market schemes or legal frameworks that limit supply even when the demand from patients is great.
Francis warns us: Let us ward off destructive cynicism! May we reach out to our brothers and sisters and support them so they can feel the warmth of our presence, our friendship, and our fraternity! May their cry become our own, and together may we break down the barriers of indifference. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy, he says, “will be a way to reawaken our conscience, too often grown dull in the face of poverty.”
5. It is not necessary to understand it all if we are open to the mystery.
Science has unfolded many layers that surround what were, in centuries past, the mysteries of pathologies and treatment. Solidarity permits human knowledge and learning to be shared, and Solidarity Bridge structures its missions to do just that. Mentored surgeries and coursework permit what was initially unknown to a doctor to become part of his or her skills set -- and ultimately benefit patients.
A neurosurgeon, whose discernment, dexterity and calming presence in the operating room has won the respect of colleagues in Bolivia, mentioned to me on mission that every surgery has the potential for good and for harm. An advocate for access to surgeries globally, he approaches the role of the surgeon abroad with utmost care. Willing to operate under developing world conditions, he aims to expand access to equipment and training to ensure safety for all patients. He meticulously seeks clues in magnetic images, unravels the mysteries of failing equipment, establishes surgical strategies, and expertly teaches less experienced surgeons to mitigate risks.
He knows that medicine and human life is much more than a puzzle. Charged time and again with discussing the reality of our mortality with patients and their families -- and capable of doing that with compassion -- he mentions a deep desire to contemplate life’s mysteries even further.
Our faith teaches us that there is indeed mystery. Francis explains that mercy will take us to the unknowable. From the heart of the Trinity, he says, from the depths of the mystery of God, the great river of mercy wells up and overflows unceasingly. It is a spring that will never run dry, no matter how many people draw from it. Every time someone is in need, he or she can approach it, because the mercy of God never ends.
As this Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to a close, I can say with certainty that my first year with Solidarity Bridge has been extraordinary. I give thanks, knowing that the opened doors will not close. As Francis teaches us, the profundity of the mystery surrounding mercy is as inexhaustible as the richness which springs up from it.
 All citations of the words of Pope Francis are from the Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Year of Mercy
 Pope John Paul II - Sollicitudo rei socialis