Many of my colleagues in leadership and governance roles in Catholic health and aged care come from a variety of religious traditions or none. Even among the Catholics, only some are active participants in faith practice these days, and certainly many have profound questions.
So put yourself into these shoes: Imagine having only the most general understanding of Catholicism and being tasked with providing leadership consistent with the mission and values of a Catholic health or aged care provider, leading in ways that extend the healing ministry of Jesus. And it’s also been made clear to you that as a leader you cannot just defer to the Mission Leader to communicate and nurture the organisation’s mission. For many people that’s a big ask, and resources to help answer the challenge won’t readily spring to mind.
So imagine this new role you’ve taken is in a local aged care home run by a Catholic organisation. You notice something about the facility that feels warm and welcoming; you like the values they talk about, but you don’t necessarily understand where the “religious” aspect fits in.
Perhaps one of your first jobs is to ring the “bishop” and members of the “clergy” of the local “diocese” to invite them to a “liturgy” where a “sacrament”, the “anointing of the sick” will be included. At the liturgy there will be a “ritual” to honour the “sisters” whose “order” founded the aged care facility. You are asked to plan a celebration of the “founding story” and “charism” of the sisters whose aim was to keep alive the “healing ministry of Jesus” in today’s world.
You have limited understanding of what some of this language means. Your experience as a Catholic school student is not helping you put it altogether and certainly your recent job in a privately run aged care facility or government hospital didn’t expose you to this kind of terminology. What on earth are you to do? This is a hypothetical situation, of course – an exaggerated one – but the experience of “not getting the language” is a very real one for many people working in Catholic hospitals, aged care homes and community care organisations.
To combat this confusion, a new resource has been produced to help people understand the “Catholic” in Catholic health and aged care. It has been produced by Catholic Health Australia (CHA) – the body representing the interests of Catholic hospitals, health care systems, and aged and community care providers across Australia.
Many people will be familiar with some of the Catholic hospitals and aged care systems CHA represents – the Mater in Brisbane, Calvary Healthcare, St John of God Health Care, Mercy Health, Southern Cross Care and St Vincent’s Health Australia, to name a few.
Until recently my own work was as Group Leader of Mission was with St Vincent’s Health Australia, a Catholic provider running both public and private hospitals, as well as medical research institutes, aged care and palliative care facilities across various parts of the country. Previously CEO of Caritas Australia, and soon to start in the role of CEO for the St Vincent de Paul Society of NSW (Vinnies). Across a career in Catholic organisations I’ve seen first-hand just how easily the Catholic way of things – especially for someone new to our tradition – can simply be lost in translation.
For those who work in Catholic health and aged care organisations, particularly those in mission-related roles, Catholic language permeates all we do. We take it for granted. But it is part of making us who we are and it should help those we serve recognise what makes us different.
The language we use should impact the culture of our Catholic organisations so that when people receive care in one of our hospitals, aged care facilities, or community care in their own home, they really do experience the kind of loving, attentive care that Jesus gave through his ministry of healing. Our language is deliberately about meaning-making and that’s why it needs to be at the service of those men, women and children we all care for.
“Language is arguably the most critical element we use on a daily basis to shape our mission,” says Adjunct Professor Stephen Cornelissen, Group CEO of Mercy Health, one of Victoria’s leading Catholic healthcare providers.
“Understanding how and why we use particular language is critical if we are to authentically lead and grow an organisational culture committed to the healing ministry of Christ.”
The reality is of course that people who work in Catholic organisations come from all walks of life and backgrounds, as do the people who come to us to receive our care. The religious sisters and brothers are no longer the obvious presence they once were on the hospital wards and in the aged care homes, although some are still present in leadership and advisory capacities. Many of the leaders in Catholic health and aged care may be lay Catholics, but more likely, many will not be. Instead they will be people of goodwill who have varying degrees of understanding of what I’m calling the “Catholic thing.” It’s important to know that “the Catholic thing” does relate to the experiences we each have been shaped by and gives an additional layer of meaning to the way we work. It is also the case that the “Catholic thing” can provide a robust intellectual framework to challenge some of the changing circumstances and influences having an impact health and aged care services.
The need for a resource to address the issue of language became clear a number of years ago when Catholic Health Australia surveyed its members about what might be helpful for leaders of Catholic health and aged care organisations. Sixty per cent of respondents expressed an urgent need for resources specifically tailored to people with a range of different backgrounds, to help familiarise them with the words and concepts that are commonly used in Church agencies.
From this identified need, the idea to write Language at the Heart of Mission was born.
Language at the Heart of Mission is a resource to help people come to a clearer understanding about why the Catholic Church is involved in health and aged care. We understand it is because Jesus himself reached out and healed people of all walks of life and circumstances. So the Christian community across the many centuries since, strives to carry on the tradition of Jesus’ healing ministry – a big goal in any person’s language. But we can’t assume that people will understand what that entails and how each person who works with us is actually part of that ministry.
We want to help people understand and feel included in the Catholic culture of the organisation – whether they are patients, residents, family members, cleaners, administrators or world-renowned surgeons. As well as feeling included we also want people to recognise that the language of mission can enhance our leadership and the experience of healing. Language at the Heart of Mission emphasises that the language we use has a major impact on the culture within organisations. So it offers a general introduction to the words and concepts considered most important and most often used from the perspective of understanding and communicating culture.
The resource has three sections. Part A offers a rationale for why language is such an important expression of organisational culture and explains the context and meaning of key concepts related to the mission, ministry, Catholic identity, ethical vision, the Catholic Social Tradition, and spirituality of a Catholic organisation.
It also discusses language that needs to be avoided in Catholic health and aged care. Catholic hospitals and aged care organisations are highly sophisticated operations with financial, budgeting and administration requirements to match. Sometimes the business and clinical language used does not align with a Catholic ethos. So Language at the Heart of Mission also provides guidance about the language that is inappropriate in a Catholic institution. Ultimately our language needs to reflect the dignity of each person we care for and avoid de-personalising or commodifying them.
“How we say something, the words we choose to use, brings our innermost thoughts and attitudes out into the open,” says Rev Dr Joseph Parkinson, Director of the Perth-based LJ Goody Bioethics Centre.
“The attitudes of care and compassion that drive our ministries can be diminished if we use the wrong words to express ourselves.”
Part B of the resource is a glossary of many of the terms that are used in Catholic health and aged care facilities, and Part C is a simple guide to the correct way of addressing members of the Catholic clergy, including religious brothers and sisters, both in person and in writing. This guidance would have proven helpful in our hypothetical example at the beginning of this article. The new employee would be able to work out what all those Catholic terms mean and address his or her correspondence to the local bishop and clergy without fear of addressing them in a way that could cause offence.
Catholic Health Australia has produced Language at the Heart of Mission with the assistance of a broad range of people within Catholic health and aged care organisations. This wider experience and wisdom has been brought to the preparation of a resource designed to help us all keep alive the Catholic mission within our hospitals, aged care and community care in the home.
Importantly, because it has been developed with such a breadth of experience and insight, I believe it could be relevant to other Catholic organisations such as Catholic parishes, schools and universities, social service providers, as well as for lay Catholics. It could be a helpful go-to guide for any number of circumstances.
I’m delighted to have this resource to support my role. I would have been delighted to have it available in my former role as CEO of Caritas Australia. I recommend it to people in Catholic Church agencies, wherever they serve.
“Choosing the right words can keep our hearts and minds focused where they should be, on the dignity of every person in our ministries,” says Rev Dr Joseph Parkinson. “I think Language at the Heart of Mission will quickly become an indispensable resource for us all.”