Divine physician – Hospital Christ statue source of hope, consolation

By George P. Matysek Jr.8/25/2006

The Catholic Review (www.catholicreview.org)

BALTIMORE, Md. (The Catholic Review) She didn’t want to die alone. Knowing that the end of her painful battle with AIDS was coming fast, the 17-year-old girl asked that someone be by her side. But with none of her relatives able to make it to Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore on what would be the teen’s last day of life, it was left to Dr. Patricia Fosarelli to fulfill the young patient’s request.

HOSPITAL STATUE A SOURCE OF STRENGTH – Visitors and patients often touch the Christ statue at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md. Ever since it was erected in 1896, “Christus Consolator” has been a source of inspiration, hope and consolation for countless patients, doctors, students and visitors of all faiths. (Catholic Review)

Fosarelli stayed with the girl by her hospital bed for several hours until her chest rose and fell for the last time.

The pediatrician had known other children taken by sickness. But seeing another youngster’s promising life cut short in such a seemingly cruel way overwhelmed her with sadness. It was a heavy weight Fosarelli carried with her the rest of the afternoon as she treated other patients.
At the end of that hot and humid August day in Baltimore several years ago, Fosarelli was walking to her car when she stopped in her tracks at the sight of a familiar figure that somehow seemed different on that difficult day.

Standing in the lobby below the grand dome of the Hopkins’ Billings Administration Building, the 10-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus shows a calm-looking man extending his arms.
The towering, robed Christ gently bows his head, casting a sympathetic gaze to mortals below even as his long wavy hair and curly beard serve as reminders of his shared humanity.

“I looked up at it, and my eyes just filled with tears,” remembered Fosarelli, who has served on the Hopkins faculty on a full-time or part-time basis since 1983. She is also the director of religious education at Corpus Christi in Baltimore and assistant dean of the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary and University, Roland Park.

"I needed healing that night because it’s always dreadful when someone dies – especially a child,” Fosarelli said. “She had suffered so much. Standing there in wordless prayer gave me strength. It gave me a sense of peace.” The girl was not alone, and neither was Fosarelli.
'Christus Consolator'

osarelli isn’t the only one devoted to the Hopkins Christ statue. Ever since it was erected in 1896, “Christus Consolator” has been a source of inspiration, hope and consolation for countless patients, doctors, students and visitors of all faiths from around the world.

A replica of an 1820 work by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, the statue was cut from a single block of Carrara marble and shipped to Fells Point, where it was pulled by a team of horses up Broadway to its permanent home at Hopkins.

Three brick columns beneath the marble floor in the building’s rotunda were erected to support the six-ton behemoth.

The statue was a long-awaited acknowledgement of God that had been conspicuously lacking when the university was dedicated in 1876. Johns Hopkins, a Quaker businessman who endowed the institution named after him, intended the hospital-university to be a non-sectarian center of scientific advancement.
But after many across the country were outraged that there was no reference to the Almighty at the university’s dedication, Daniel Coit Gilman, president of the university and hospital, asked for someone to donate a replica of the Thorvaldsen statue. William Wallace Spence, a Baltimore businessman, funded the artwork.

“People who come to Hopkins are expecting the best of the best,” explained Father Paul Sparklin, Catholic chaplain at the hospital.

“They are looking to this as a medical shrine,” he said. “But in a way it’s also a spiritual shrine. The people who come here are much like those going to Lourdes expecting a cure.” Father Sparklin said he was impressed that the rotunda area where the statue stands is instinctively treated as reverent space by almost everyone. People speak in hushed voices, leave flowers by the statue or just stand in silent prayer, he said.
Two journals are kept to the left and right of the statue for people to jot down thoughts and intentions. Once filled, the journals are stored in chronological order in Hopkins’ pastoral care department.

“Dear Lord, thank you for everything that you allow me to do,” read one August entry. “Because you only know what I have been through. Thank you for the breath of my baby. P.S. - Hope to see you again.” Another recent entry in flowing cursive was addressed to the “Great Physician” from a medical doctor: “Thank you for healing my wife,” it said. “Please use me to bring health of body, mind and spirit to others.” Still another entry, written in tight script, begged for mercy.

“Oh Sacred Heart of Jesus, forgive me for I am a sinner,” it said. “Keep me by your side.” Amanda Farr, a parishioner of the Shrine of the Little Flower in Bethesda, was at Hopkins in August while her mother, Sandee Farr, underwent three emergency surgeries within a week to treat an intestinal problem.
Her mother prayed for 10 minutes at the feet of the statue on the first day she arrived at the hospital, her daughter said.

“What my mom commented about was that most statues depict Jesus in a state of dying,” said Ms. Farr. “This one shows him strong and healthy, with powerful outstretched arms. She felt a great sense of comfort.” Before going into surgery, Ms. Farr’s mother told her daughter she was confident that she was “in God’s hands.” “That statue meant a lot,” said Ms. Farr, noting that her mother remains in critical condition. “If my mother was conscious right now, we’d be down there praying.”

Powerful symbol

It’s not just Christians or even believers who find inspiration in Hopkins’ figure of hope.
“The statue crosses the bounds of religion,” said Rev. Uwe Scharf, director of the pastoral care department at Hopkins. “I’ve seen Hindus and Muslims come in front of the statue. It’s a beautiful symbol that not only does science reign here, but God is present.” Rev. Scharf said he has never heard any complaints about a religious symbol receiving such prominence in a secular institution.

With the Christ figure designed to take an eternal step forward, it seems to invite people to touch Jesus’ wounded right foot that bears an imprint of the nails of crucifixion. Many people can’t resist, solemnly touching the foot as they walk by. So many have touched it that the marble has been worn smooth over the century.

An inscription written in capital letters on the pedestal reads: “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” These days, Fosarelli said she still finds inspiration from the Christ statue. More people visit the statue than the chapel, she said.

“At the statue, I don’t remember those who survived,” said Fosarelli. “I think more of the ones who died. I pray for them.” Father Salvatore Livigni, the former Catholic chaplain at Hopkins for eight years, said the Christ image is a source of “refreshment.” “It shows you what great compassion Jesus had,” said Father Livigni, who was presented with a miniature two-foot-tall copy of the statue when he left Hopkins. He keeps it in his bedroom watching after him.

“To know that the Lord’s there,” he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s a powerful thing. It’s beautiful.”

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