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CMA-PORTLAND Nov-3-2005 (710 words) With photo. xxxn

Catholic Medical Association links medicine and spirituality

By Catholic News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. (CNS) -- Catholic doctors from 43 states and Canada discussed the relationship of spirituality to physical health and medicine at the Catholic Medical Association's 74th annual educational conference in Portland.

"The Biological and Spiritual Development of the Child" was the theme of the Oct. 20-22 meeting.

Dr. Daniel Siegel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of California, Los Angeles, kicked off the conference by looking at the physical development of the brain in light of attachment psychology, or what he called interpersonal neurobiology.

The development of the mind and brain in children begins in the womb, Siegel said. He defined the mind as "a process that regulates the flow of energy and information."

Unborn children can remember beginning as early as the seventh month and perhaps even earlier, he said. After birth, their brain development begins in the brain stem and works from there to the higher functions. In the first three years, "a million synapses are being made every second," he said.

At puberty, he said, "the prefrontal cortex (where higher functions take place) becomes a major reconstruction site." The connections in the brain begin to be remade at this time and this goes on into the 20s. That's why, he said, it is so dangerous to introduce drugs into the body in adolescence.

David Fagerberg, a liturgist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, said physicians should look beyond just the physical ailments of their patients to the whole person, including the spiritual.

"We have too puny a notion of Christianity," he said. As ancient Christian writers taught, "God became man so that man might become divine," he added.

"We wear faces that have been wounded by the world and by self-mutilation from sin," he said, but the physician also has to see his patients, made in the image of God, "on the way to transformation."

Dr. Kenneth McElynn, a physician who works with Spanish immigrants in North Carolina, spoke of the relation between physical health and factors that are more of a spiritual than physical nature.

He described what has been called the Rosetto effect, named after a southeastern Pennsylvania town founded by Italian immigrants.

He said scientists found that this town, which was rich in religious, ethnic and community tradition, had practically no deaths from heart attacks in the 1940s and '50s, despite residents' fat-heavy diets and frequent smoking. The residents' life at that time was centered on the church -- with a lot of the glue supporting their lives provided by local businesses as well as time spent on front porches and a rejection of outward displays of wealth.

But in the 1960s, church life diminished, people began to build patios and decks on the back of their homes, displays of status became prominent and local businesses folded. By the 1970s, the town's rate of death by heart attack matched the rest of the country, he said.

One way to change that outcome, argued McElynn, would be to bring back traditions and communal life that revolve around people rather than around commercial success.

For Dr. Mary Keuhl, a family-practice physician in Chippewa Falls, Wis., the conference provided an opportunity to be refreshed in her faith.

"I'm not going to be preaching to my patients," she said, "but this really strengthens me for being in the secular world. ... It solidifies me in my Catholic faith."

The conference included liturgies and perpetual adoration of the Eucharist.

At a Mass for the association board, meeting before the conference, Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Ore., compared the role of Catholic physicians to the saints who pursue truth regardless of consequences and public opinion.

"The Catholic Medical Association is a witness to the world that there are physicians and other medical personnel committed to the right and true, the good and beautiful, who will not turn aside no matter the perils," said Bishop Vasa, who is episcopal adviser to the association.

He cited an early second-century bishop and martyr, St. Ignatius of Antioch, who after his arrest, as he was being taken to Rome to be thrown to the lions for his faith, said he would gladly be Christ's wheat, "ground by the teeth of beasts to become pure bread."


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