PHOENIX — Catholic medical professionals from throughout the Diocese gathered for prayer, worship, and a message from someone who should know a thing or two about perseverance under the most trying conditions.

Cardinal George Pell, the former Vatican official who spent 405 days in prison for a sex-abuse conviction that was later overturned, celebrated the annual White Mass in the Virginia G. Piper Chapel at the Diocese of Phoenix Pastoral Center Saturday, Nov. 20, for the Solemnity of Christ the King.

Cardinal Pell was joined by concelebrant Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.

Named for the white coats worn by doctors and white uniforms by nurses, the Mass was not celebrated last year due to the COVID 19 pandemic.

The congregation included about 300, mostly health care workers, students and their guests.

Afterward, Cardinal Pell addressed a dinner hosted by the Catholic Medical Association of Phoenix, an organization that fosters the practice of Catholic moral and ethical principles in medicine while supporting and encouraging medical professionals in the faith.

“COVID has been very, very difficult,” Cardinal Pell told the dinner guests. “Many medical people have been exhausted. A percentage of people have resigned.”

But, he assured them, “the public recognizes this devotion. They also understand.”

Such commitment by doctors is nothing new, Pell said.

Recalling the Antonine Plague, which erupted in 165 A.D. at the height of Roman power, Pell noted that during the outbreak Galen, a Greek and the most prominent physician in that part of the world, left his patients in Rome to return to his home in Asia Minor.

“The Christians stayed and nursed their sick,” he explained. “Mercy was regarded as a weakness at that time. Christian attitudes were different and are different today. We fight suffering as well as anybody. We confront it; we help people at every stage. The secularist instinct is to eliminate the suffering — as in abortion or euthanasia,” he added.

Centuries later, a modern plague is testing the medical community’s mettle, including Catholic doctors, nurses, physicians assistants, technicians and others.

“I think there is a lot of distress in medical practitioners in general. The entire field has come under a lot of stress in the last two years; not just doctors, but nurses and ancillary support workers. That’s why we’re facing such a tremendous work-force shortage,” explained Dr. Thomas D. Shellenberger, a surgical oncologist and president of the Catholic Medical Association of Phoenix.

“The ones who have stayed are facing problems with burnout and, quite frankly, in finding humanity in the practice of medicine. That’s distressing because that goes against the reason most of us went to practice medicine in the first place,” he added.

Dr. Maricela Moffit, the Catholic Medical Association treasurer, is a hospitalist. Her task is to care for patients in a hospital. She said she has been around colleagues who have seen a good deal of death.

“During the height of the pandemic, an intern declared six people dead within a 24-hour period. I looked at him, and there was nothing there. He was going through the motions,” she recalled.

Even those preparing to enter the field are acutely aware of the stakes.

David Gettinato, who attends St. Joan of Arc Church in Phoenix, said that he has occasionally examined his decision to go to medical school and asks himself, “‘Are you able to do this? Will I make an impact? Am I following God’s will? I pray that I am always following God’s will.”

Which is exactly where the strength to persevere is derived from, according to the doctors and students.

“Our faith has been our rock,” Gettinato said, standing beside his wife, Sadie. Others echoed the thought.

“My faith; our belief in the Lord, is what has carried me through this and allows me to carry on,” said Dr. Moffitt.

“I think, for those within our faith community who are physicians, they have dug deeper into their faith, and that’s been a sustaining thing for a lot of us,” Shellenberger said.

The test was particularly acute at the height of the pandemic, when face-to-face interaction was rare.

“Our group has missed the camaraderie and bonding that is so important in any group,” Shellenberger explained. “The idea of doing things by Zoom is impersonal at the bare-bones level of function, but not nearly the high functional level so important in fellowship. That is why our organization exists — to meet together and celebrate Mass together and have human interaction.”

The Mass opened with a short introduction from Bishop Olmsted of Cardinal Pell, who the bishop said had been described by a colleague as “a man of towering faith.”

Later, in his homily, the Cardinal discussed the day’s Gospel reading from St. John (18:33-37) in which Jesus tells Pilate during questioning by the Roman governor prior to the Crucifixion that, while Jesus’ Kingdom is “not of this world,” He came to earth to “testify to the truth.”

“Every human life and every period of human history is marked by the struggle between good and evil, truth and lies, light and darkness. Everyone has to choose his side in this struggle. We strive. Sometimes, we succeed, Sometimes, we fail. And because of the victory of our Redeemer King on the Cross, our sins can and will be forgiven if we repent. We can say the kingdom of God is within us, within our individual houses, to the extent we live out in faith and goodness a share of Christ’s kingly role we received in baptism,” the cardinal told the congregation.

The former prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy, Pell left the position in 2017 to defend himself against allegations he molested two choirboys in 1996 while Archbishop of Melbourne, Australia. Convicted by a jury, Pell was sentenced to a maximum of 6 years in prison with a possibility of parole after 3 years and 8 months. He served 405 days behind bars, including 5 months in solitary confinement, until Australia’s highest court overturned his conviction April 7, 2020, citing a reasonable doubt in the testimony of his lone accuser.

Pell has addressed the case and his release in several interviews since.

The medical association presented him with its Evangelium Vitae Award. In English, the title means “The Gospel of Life.” It is named for a 1995 encyclical by St. John Paul II. The honor is given by the medical association following the White Mass, “to recognize a member of the Church… who offers the world new signs of hope and works to ensure justice and solidarity will be increased and that a culture of life will be affirmed.”

Cardinal Pell is “a man who could not be broken,” the presentation stated.

The organization then bestowed upon Bishop Olmsted its St. Luke Award, citing the bishop’s “firm dedication” to the association. “Your tenure has tirelessly supported the right practice of medicine in Arizona, underscored by an unwavering support for the human dignity of all persons, a constant drive to serve the most vulnerable among us, and boundless respect for life at all stages.”

The group also announced it would sponsor a table at the annual dinner in the bishop’s name, calling his presence to the Diocese’s medical community “a wellspring of inspiration.”

The group also paid tribute to its late vice president. Dr. Jim Asher, the 2019 St. Luke recipient, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on Oct. 30 but “leaves us all with a legacy of great hope,” Shellenberger said.