19 February 1987

To the participants in a Conference of Surgeons

John Paul II received the participants in a conference of surgeons sponsored by the Italian Branch

of the International College of Surgeons in an audience held on Thursday, 19 February.  The Holy Father addressed the group as follows:


1. I feel a deep joy at being able to meet you, distinguished participants in the Conference of the Italian Branch of the International College of Surgeons, who have gathered in Rome to discuss the evolution of surgery from the days of Pietro Valdoni to the present.

I greet you all most cordially, particularly Professor Gianfranco Fegiz, director of the First General Surgical Clinic of “La Sapienza” University of Rome, and President of your Conference.  I likewise wish to greet the sponsors of the important scientific event, the speakers, their respective families and all who have come to the special audience.

With this meeting in Rome you intend to celebrate the memory of an illustrious leader of your field of medicine, a man who for many  of you was a wise and much-loved teacher, Professor Pietro Valdoni.  It is right to recall with well-deserved and affectionate gratitude the witness offered by that famous scholar and researcher, universally appreciated for his contribution to the art of surgery and for the stimulation and growth he supplied in the areas of anaesthesia and resuscitation.  Quite properly you have wished to take his work as a point of reference for the consideration of the further developments which have matured in your branch of medicine to the present day.  You likewise wish to remember the deep humanity which distinguished him, bringing him to dedicate himself just as fully to the care of the humble and unknown as to well-known individuals.

God, the author of life

2. Your presence prompts me to reflect on certain questions which arise in your profession, not, certainly, to enter into their technical aspects, but because you yourselves are convinced – and your presence here is proof – that, together with problems of a technical and practical nature, there exist questions on the human, spiritual and moral plane which are of no less importance, questions which you must face on a daily basis.  In the exercise of your profession, in fact, you are constantly dealing with the human person, who entrusts his body into your hands, trusting in your competence as well as in your solicitude and care.  You deal with the mysterious and great reality of the life of a human being, with his suffering and his hope.  You are aware of this, and you know well the responsibility which weighs upon you at every moment.

Precisely for this reason I wish to express all my admiration for such a difficult, delicate, yet providential profession as yours, while I congratulate you on the advances that your art continues to make in the service of all.  Many persons threatened by the most varied forms of illness look with hope and expectation to the great steps taken by your science, steps amply attested to by the conference you are holding.  It is precisely this service to man that must stimulate and give meaning to all your research and experimentation:  the good of man, sought constantly and assiduously, is the fundamental motivation which must guide you in your efforts.  In the thrilling recognition of the bold advances which have been made, the intrinsic end of your mission becomes ever clearer; the affirmation of man’s right to his life and dignity.

3. From this perspective, the moral responsibility intrinsic to your profession acquires greater clarity.  This was aptly expressed by my predecessor Paul VI when he affirmed that your work, since it draws on values of the spirit, can transform itself into religious activity (cf. Insegnamenti di Paolo VI, l, 1963, p. 141).  The growing capacity to exercise control over the body, over its organs, and, in the last analysis, over the lives of the persons entrusted into your hands, allows you more and more to appreciate the significance of these essential threads that tie every human creature to God, the author of life.  It is in this light that you must always act, concerned that your work be carried out always within the limits of respect for the life created by God, and defending the right of the person to express himself in a manner worthy of a human being.  The norm which must inspire each decision you make is that of the best interest of the person, considered in his totality.  There is a particular imprint of God in every sick person you encounter, and you are called to act in such a way that it is never degraded, obscured or violated.  The dominion over nature ever more clearly evidenced by your science allows you to intervene with growing safety and effectiveness, in such a way that the life and integrity of those who give themselves into your care is not put at risk.  Indeed, it allows you to work in such a way that the transcendental dignity of man, a creature of God, a child of God who is loved by God, is more clearly affirmed.

You will be most highly attentive, then, to the ethical norms that emerge from the religious consideration of man.  Let this be your commitment, this your witness, especially when you are called upon to intervene in circumstances which are complex, unforeseen, hazardous.  Both individuals and the entire community will truly benefit from your profession if your methods of investigation and proof always aim to guarantee the highest values, to which science must subordinate its service.

In this regard, I wish to repeat what I have already affirmed, in analogous circumstances, concerning the much-discussed question of experimentation:  Ethical norms founded on respect for the dignity of the person, must illuminate and discipline the phase of research just as much as that of the application of the results achieved through it (cf. Insegnamenti, II-2, 1980, p. 1008).  Scientific research, which is more concerned for itself than for the men and women it should serve, does not respect the fundamental moral criterion which should guide you.  You well know that all research must be conducted and applied with all the precautions necessary to guarantee, as much as possible, the safeguarding of life, together with the fundamental values of the person.  I ask you to give effective testimony of equity and charity in this field.

4. Allow me, finally, a thought regarding the relationship between you and your patients.  This is an extremely important aspect of your profession.  The influence that a patient’s will to recover has in clinical treatment is in fact well known, and experience shows to what extent this will finds its support in the dialogue that a doctor succeeds in establishing with his patients.  Now you know better than anyone else the risk to which every clinical treatment is exposed, the risk, that is, that technology takes the place of the rapport of dialogue between doctor and patient, sometimes with very negative consequences even for the therapeutic process.  In other words, the risk is that a dehumanized form of medicine might find acceptance.  Every treatment involves, in and of itself, a reciprocity, and it requires authentically human relations.  On the one hand, the patient’s entrusting himself to you involves a more or less explicit recognition of your competence and skill, a consent to your intervention, confidence in your discretion and responsibility.  On the other, you yourselves need to understand the patient in his whole life context, so as to offer him personalized assistance.  It is necessary, then, that there be established a link between the psycho-affective sphere of the one suffering and your interior world as human beings, first, and then as professionals.  The patient-doctor relationship must, therefore, increasingly become “an authentic meeting between two free men…between a “trust” and an “awareness” (cf. Insegnamenti, II-2, 1980, p. 1010).  The goals to be attained in this field can be suggested to you  precisely by Christian justice and charity, inspired by the model of Christ, healer of bodies as well as of souls.  It is charity that leads to friendship, empathy, an interior closeness to the anxieties, fears and hopes of the one suffering.  Charity will render your heart ever more sensitive to the personal values of the patient.  In this regard, seek to remove, as much as you can, any obstacle to an attentive humanization of the relations between patients and medical staff:  develop around you that lively sense of man which is born from the model of evangelical charity.  I sincerely invite you to render ever more noble, indeed, to elevate, your spirit of humanity, thus giving to your every meeting with the suffering the exalted value of a sacred act.  It is Christ who says to you:  “As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40).

5. With these reflections, and trusting in the noble intentions which have led you to this meeting, and above all recognizing the strong humanitarian motives which daily inspire your work, I sincerely wish for you effective progress in your research, progress in favour of all mankind and each individual.

May Christ, who suffers in the flesh of each patient, crown your efforts and your research with the success you desire and merit.  With these intentions, I give you all my heartfelt Apostolic Blessing.

John Paul II