Local Catholic association supports physicians in their vocation

Dr. Saad Jazrawi, president of the Portland Catholic Physicians Guild, holds daughter Samar, age 7 months, during a dinner following the annual White Mass for Catholic health care workers in 2019. “If I combine my faith and my work, I’m a better Catholic and a better physician,” said Jazrawi. / Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel

Portland, Ore., May 11, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

As a committed Catholic and newly minted medical doctor, Saad Jazrawi was clear about his mission: treat patients with Christlike compassion.

He also knew distractions would abound, from the allure of a bigger house or fancier car to the stress of navigating insurance companies and administrative demands. And he’d encounter an array of moral issues — if not regularly in his own work, in his interactions with colleagues — abortion, medically assisted suicide and new views on gender.

“If I combine my faith and my work, I’m a better Catholic and a better physician,” said Jazrawi, a gastroenterologist who deals with digestive diseases and abdominal cancer. “I wanted to make sure that the two would not be in conflict, and I needed support.”

When Jazrawi moved to Oregon, he found the spiritual and practical encouragement he sought in the Portland Catholic Physicians Guild.

“It’s a small community of morally sound physicians who have been so helpful,” said Jazrawi, who was named guild president seven years ago. “I’ve become more comfortable not being distracted by things and can focus on what’s important — caring for patients with respect for the whole human person.”

Medical residents, including Temilola Yvonne Abdul (center), pose during the 2018 Catholic Medical Association conference, held in Dallas. / Courtesy Catholic Medical Association/Catholic Sentinel
Medical residents, including Temilola Yvonne Abdul (center), pose during the 2018 Catholic Medical Association conference, held in Dallas. / Courtesy Catholic Medical Association/Catholic Sentinel

The Portland guild is a chapter of the Catholic Medical Association and one of about 110 such organizations nationwide. It aims to uphold principles of Catholic morality in medicine, communicate Catholic medical ethics to the broader community, and fortify medical professionals in their faith.

The local guild began in the early 1950s as a loose affiliation of Catholic doctors. Most were parishioners of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church in Southwest Portland and lived near “Pill Hill,” so dubbed for its proximity to Oregon Health and Science University.

The group grew more active in the 1960s, and members gave talks on natural family planning at Oregon parishes. The guild essentially dissolved for a time, but in the 1990s Dr. Thomas Pitre and his wife, Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre, revitalized it.

Physician-assisted suicide was gaining support locally, and within a few years Oregon would become the first state in the nation to legalize lethal prescriptions.

Dr. Thomas Pitre and wife, Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre, helped revitalize the Portland Catholic Physicians Guild in the 1990s. / Courtesy of Dr. Thomas Pitre/Catholic Sentinel
Dr. Thomas Pitre and wife, Dr. Lynne Bissonnette-Pitre, helped revitalize the Portland Catholic Physicians Guild in the 1990s. / Courtesy of Dr. Thomas Pitre/Catholic Sentinel

“We felt the need as Catholic physicians to get Catholic doctors together to preserve our ethic that the Catholic faith is not incompatible with being a physician” and to address new practices that violated core tenants of the faith, said Pitre, who retired last year after 45 years in urology. He and Bissonnette-Pitre, a psychiatrist, are converts.

In 2005, the Portland guild hosted the association’s annual conference, drawing more than 300 medical professionals to the city for a gathering that included talks and daily Mass. The following year Pitre began a term as president of the national association.

The local guild’s most notable achievement is Holy Family Catholic Clinic, founded by three guild members and opened last year in West Linn, a suburb of Portland.

“They are doing marvelous work there at the medical clinic,” said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, guild chaplain. The monsignor is director of the Portland archdiocesan Office of Divine Worship and recently was named rector of St. Mary Cathedral.

“Holy Family is a great resource for me now as a parish priest,” Msgr. O’Connor said. “I can send young couples who are planning to marry to the clinic to learn about natural family planning.”

Membership in the Portland guild has fluctuated over the past few decades, but it currently has about 25 core members, with many others attending special events such as the White Mass and annual dinner. There are meetings the first Saturday of the month, occasional social gatherings and retreats.

Dr. William Toffler, a member of the Portland Catholic Physicians Guild, speaks during a 2016 Catholic Medical Association event in Mundelein, Illinois. The doctor is one of three co-founders of Holy Family Catholic Clinic, the Portland guild’s most significant achievement. / Courtesy Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel
Dr. William Toffler, a member of the Portland Catholic Physicians Guild, speaks during a 2016 Catholic Medical Association event in Mundelein, Illinois. The doctor is one of three co-founders of Holy Family Catholic Clinic, the Portland guild’s most significant achievement. / Courtesy Marc Salvatore/Catholic Sentinel

“It’s been a tremendous comfort to know there are other like-minded physicians in a culture that is increasingly at odds with what we believe,” said Pitre, echoing fellow members.

Periodically multiple guilds convene to learn about issues or upcoming legislation with ethical or religious liberty implications. Members also have engaged in advocacy, testifying at the Oregon state Capitol against euthanasia and collecting signatures for various respect-life measures. The guild sometimes collaborates with other Christian associations on issues.

In November of last year, the Portland group sent a letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown conveying concerns about pandemic-related restrictions on communal worship. They were most worried about how the rules would impact psychological well-being. The physicians praised Brown for responding to an uptick in COVID-19 infections but asked her to consider each church’s capacity, an approach backed by science. Archbishop Alexander Sample also sent a letter to the governor, who eventually reworked the guidelines.

Archbishop Alexander Sample offers encouragement to medical professionals following a 2019 Mass in their honor. / Courtesy Saad Jazrawi/Catholic Sentinel
Archbishop Alexander Sample offers encouragement to medical professionals following a 2019 Mass in their honor. / Courtesy Saad Jazrawi/Catholic Sentinel

Archbishop Sample has been a champion of the Portland guild, as have previous archbishops. “We’ve also been fortunate to have many great chaplains,” said Pitre, noting Benedictine Father Bernard Sander, Msgr. Richard Huneger and Father Eric Andersen.

The current chaplain expressed his immense respect for guild members.

They work within a culture that’s not pro-life and even encounter hostility to Catholic teaching at some Catholic hospitals, said Msgr. O’Connor.

The camaraderie the guild affords, plus the support from the national organization, “allows men and women of faith to share with courage and knowledge church teaching in the world,” he said. “That’s a beautiful thing.”

The couple added additional events to the guild’s calendar and restarted a White Mass, held for medical professionals on the feast day of St. Luke. The saint was both Gospel writer and physician.

Cardinal Francis George, former head of the Portland Archdiocese, spoke at several functions and encouraged Lynne and Thomas’ efforts. He also connected them with the Catholic Medical Association.

This article was first published by the Catholic Sentinel and is reprinted with permission.


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