WASHINGTON (CNS) — Catholic health care is an indispensable part of the church’s ministry, Archbishop Blase J. Cupich of Chicago told the Catholic Health Association June 8 at its annual assembly in Washington on the CHA’s 100th anniversary.

“St. John Paul II spoke of Catholic health care as an ‘essential ministry of the church,'” Archbishop Cupich said. “I would even go further and say that Catholic health care is essential for the church’s entire ministry. What I am suggesting is that you keep fresh for the entire church what ministry is all about.”

The CHA’s centennial “comes at a graced moment in history,” the archbishop added. “Our church is blessed by the fresh insights and new vocabulary offered by Pope Francis. His inspiring writings, and especially ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ provide us a new context as we reflect on the past, but take up the present and future mission of Catholic health care with new vigor.”

Archbishop Cupich noted how “Catholic hospitals today are facing increasing financial challenges, mostly because we give priority to serving the poor. I have no easy solutions for these vexing problems, especially as states like my own (Illinois) deal with severe budget cuts. Without question the financial crises facing cities and states today have a history of bad decisions over decades.

“But as legislators deal with this issue, we can speak for those we serve, especially if their voice is easily dismissed. We know their stories and can put a human face on budget numbers,” he said. “We should also remember what the sisters taught us, that carrying for the poor is good news for society. Our commitment to the poor inspires, because people see that by sharing our civilizing gifts we are bringing stability to an otherwise unstable society.”

Archbishop Cupich added, “The church also needs to hear this message that the poor come first, as Pope Francis has repeatedly said. Catholic health care’s daily experience of serving the poor is essential for keeping the entire ministry of the church focused on this priority.”

He said workers in Catholic hospitals need not proclaim the Gospel to patients, but instead “highlight that what you are presently doing in caring for the sick, gives people hope, awakens in them the beauty of life, disposes them to the call of God. In this way you are partners with those involved in parishes and communities who take up the work of catechesis and evangelization. Your work disposes people to God, and the entire church can benefit from your good example.”

Archbishop Cupich took note of the “missionary impulse” evident in health care. “Pope Francis makes this connection between giving priority to the poor and the impact it has on the wider community and the mission of the church” in “Evangelii Gaudium,” he said.

He reminded the CHA that Pope Francis referred to St. Thomas Aquinas in “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”).

“Thomas explains that, as far as external works are concerned, mercy is the greatest of all the virtues,” Archbishop Cupich said, before quoting from the apostolic exhortation: “In itself mercy is the greatest of the virtues, since all the others revolve around it and, more than this, it makes up for their deficiencies. This is particular to the superior virtue, and as such it is proper to God to have mercy, through which his omnipotence is manifested to the greatest degree.”

“It would be a mistake to say, as some critics do, that the pope is not concerned with truth, as though mercy and truth are opposed to each other. What the pope is saying is that there has to be a dialogue between the two,” the archbishop said.

“The Catholic Health Association has much experience in keeping this dialogue alive and has never walked away from the table. As the church moves forward it is good to keep in mind the rule of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Rather than dismissing or ridiculing the other, we should always give the best possible interpretation to our dialogue partners.”