Celebrating the Feast of the patron saint of cancer patients at Sir Anthony Mamo Hospital

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Tuesday 12 May 2020 has certainly been one of my greatest highlights in my God-given vocation and my lifelong mission on earth, that of being a hospital chaplain. In fact, on this very day, liturgically we celebrate the feast of St. Leopold Mandic OFM Cap, that great Franciscan Capuchin Saint who is the patron saint of cancer patients. And, secondly, it is also the International Nurses Day since May 12 falls the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth!

At the 72nd General Assembly of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI), which was held at the Vatican from November 12 to 15 2018, the Conference decided to “establish two patron saints. The first is St. Leopold Mandić, a Franciscan Capuchin saint, as patron of those sick with cancer. Since the 1980s, many doctors and sufferers and their families have made known their wish to be able to invoke the saint in special way for this illness – cancer – that in our time is ever more widespread and distressing. Those promoting the request had the support of many of the faithful [the petition had 67 thousand signatures. – ed.] and highlighted how St. Leopold – who himself suffered much from this illness, facing it with peace and a spirit of trust and abandonment to divine goodness – could be a good example for those suffering cancer’s trials and an intercessor with God for the gift of healing.” As has been noted, St. Leopold suffered much from delicate health, which was also the cause of his short stature (it seems he was no taller an 1.35 m) as well as a speech impediment. We know that in April 1942 he was recovering in the civil hospital of Padua, where he had been diagnosed with a tumor of the esophagus. “If the Lord wants me, let him take me,” he said, adding a wish: “Let the Lord take me with my sandals on.” For, as he said, “a priest should die in his apostolic efforts; there is no other death worthy of a priest.”

For those not acquainted with him, St. Leopold (1866-1942) was a Capuchin friar from Dalmatia. As a religious, however, he belonged to the Province of Venice. There, from 1909 until he died, he ministered mercy from a tiny cell, drawing to his confessional great numbers of people seeking God’s pardon. He was called ‘Padua’s confessor.’ He had wanted to be a missionary to his Croatian brothers, but Providence did not permit it, and he became instead a missionary of the confessional. His penitents, according to Br. Carlo Calloni OFM Cap, General Postulator of the Capuchin Order, emphasized his “singular welcome, incredible patience, unflappable tact, great sense of understanding, noble bearing even with the poorest and humblest, his big heart, and his great humanity in listening.”

What a great gift the news of establishing St. Leopold Mandic OFM Cap as a patron saint of those sick with cancer has been to me! Not only because I myself am an oncology patient, because I am treated at the department of haematology, have specialized in oncology chaplaincy, and my sister died of tumor but also that I was born in 1972 and my daily prayer to the Merciful Jesus, with the prayer of Mary, the Mother of Mercy, is to die as a Franciscan Capuchin brother and a priest, as St. Leopold himself prayed! Thank you Lord Jesus for all these unfathomable gifts stemming from your most loving heart!

On the same day we celebrated the International Nurses Day! I was so thrilled to inform the nurses that Pope Francis prayed especially for them during his daily Mass at Casa Santa Marta on that Tuesday morning. Recognizing the immense value of their special vocation the Holy Father said that nursing is more than just a profession. Nursing, he said, is a vocation. He acknowledged that nursing is a calling that, particularly in this time of Covid-19 pandemic, is marked by heroism – even to the point of giving one’s life. As a matter of fact, the Pope, during his Mass, prayed that “the Lord bless (nurses),” noting that, “in this time of pandemic, they have given an example of heroism and some have given their lives. Let us pray for nurses.”

Our nurses and midwives, by what they are and do, live their profession heroically. Besides being hard-workers they are inspiring carers, healers, educators, leaders and advocates. They serve humanity and, by their caring actions, they protect the health and wellbeing of individuals, communities and our country at large. That is why a supported and an empowered nursing workforce is an effective solution to the problem of improving health outcomes. Prayer and spiritual accompaniment is surely the number one resource for this support to take place! How much pivotal the role of the hospital chaplain is in this essential and life-giving aspect of nursing self-care!

When chaplains and nurses work together they make an incredible impact on the patient’s life, his and her family and relatives and to their mutual vocation as well! As the famous African proverb goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. Both of chaplains and nurses draw their lifeline from the prayer of St. Francis: Lord make me an instrument of you piece! Yes! Indeed! Since, in what they are and do collaboratively, chaplains and nurses bring love, pardon, union, truth, faith, hope, light and joy! Together, as one family, they seek to console not to be consoled, to understand not to be understood, and to love and not to be loved. Chaplains and nurses both believe that it is in giving that one receives, it is in self-forgetting that one finds, it is in pardoning that one is pardoned, it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life. You see, then, how St. Francis and his spiritual sons, especially the Capuchin friars, most clearly on the example of St. Leopold Mandic, should dedicate their lives, as hospital chaplains, with the nurses, at our oncology hospitals, for our cancer patients, their families and the hospital staff who cares for them!

During the prayer meeting, which did not last more than five minutes, and after having blessed every single patient in the five wards of the Oncology Centre, tears of infinite gratitude and appreciation rolled from my eyes for each and every Maltese Capuchin friar who worked tirelessly, silently and faithfully in giving his very life for our cancer patients, and hospital staff, particularly to those in the nursing profession. Every tear of BIG THANK YOU goes to you dear Fr. Raphael Ellul, Fr. Gabriel Bartolo, Fr. Vincent Buhagiar, Fr. Joseph Mallia, Fr. Hilary Abela, Fr. Carmelo Dimech, Fr. Leonard Falzon, Fr. Philip Cutajar, Fr. Laurence Briffa, Fr. Anton Briffa and Fr. Carmelo Aquilina, as well as to you, so many holy Capuchin friars who, throughout the years, have laboured quitely, courageously and heroically at the oncology hospitals!

My prayer, as a Maltese Franciscan Capuchin friar, and flanked by my brothers and sisters, the nurses, with whom I am presently living at Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre, is to let Jesus giving me the strenght, both physically and spiritually, to follow him on the example of my Capuchin confrere, St. Leopold Mandic, in spending my life with cancer patients working as a chaplain at this outstanding Oncology Centre. This prayer makes perfect sense since St. Leopold, himself a Capuchin friar, is the patron saint of cancer patients. Is there a more powerful way to witness to the kernel of our Franciscan Capuchin charism, in Malta of today, more than being a hospital chaplain at the Malta’s unique and state of the art Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre? Is this not a very valid way of being a Capuchin in the world, and, first and foremost, in our Maltese context? In our dear and beloved country, the Mother that gave us her name?

Thank you Lord that now my conscience is finally at rest and joyful because it has confessed to You, Lord, the Supreme Good! St. Leopold Mandic, pray fervently for us that God’s will be done in all this undisturbed!

Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap

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