During his working hours as medical director of the Urologic Oncology Program at Cedars Sinai Hospital, Dr. Edwin Posadas keeps a small cross pinned to his coat, an indicator of his Catholic faith for patients to see.

“It’s as much for them as it is a reminder to me about what’s important,” Posadas said. 

The importance of the healing of the spirit — not just the body — is what Catholic health care professionals like Posadas gather to celebrate at the annual Healthcare Professionals Mass every October.

“To see members of your profession up at the altar with priests and bishops, honored for what they are doing in the field, people who make a difference, makes you want to follow suit,” said Posadas. “They’re putting their time and gifts out there, living their faith in a way that’s special. It inspires me to take things to another level.”

Dr. Edwin Posadas. (Screenshot via Survivornet.com)

And at a time when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities both physical and spiritual, this year’s liturgy is set to be an especially historic one.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the pews of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels will not be filled with a sea of white lab coats and uniforms (hence the name “White Mass”). The Mass, which will take place Sunday, Oct. 25 at 3:30 p.m., presided by Archbishop José H. Gomez will be livestreamed instead, with Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell serving as the homilist.

And instead of highlighting the work of one professional and one layperson as in years past, this year’s Mass will honor all health care workers: physicians, nurses, chaplains, physical therapists, mental health caregivers, chiropractors, receptionists, dietary staff, lab workers, and administrators.

In such circumstances, organizers envision an opportunity to expand the reach for those who have been on the receiving end of needed health care to offer thanks.

Elise Frederick, executive director of Mission Doctors Association, who helped reimagine and revive the event over the last decade, said this is a poignant moment in history for those in the field.

“This year especially, what could be more important than to take time to pause, breathe, and give them thanks?” said Frederick. “And if we just tried to honor one person this time, it would be inappropriate because we’re all in this together.

“This has brought out the best angels. We see how they strive — not always perfectly or easily — but that doesn’t diminish how hard this all is on them.”

An American Catholic tradition dating back to the late 1800s, the Healthcare Professionals Mass in Southern California had seen its attendance dwindle in the late 1990s. But the event made a comeback thanks to a renewed commitment from the Mission Doctors Association and collaboration with the archdiocesan Office of Life, Justice and Peace, an effort spearheaded by longtime Director of Health Affairs Sister Angela Hallahan. The Knights of Malta even got involved. As a result, attendance in recent years has surged again.

It is typically held near the Oct. 18 feast day of St. Luke the Evangelist, patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

“I knew I was committed to this Mass when there was a moment I saw where everyone was standing for a blessing of the hands, and off to the side I could see this elderly surgeon who was crying and so overcome by the moment,” said Frederick, who has spent nearly 40 years with the nonprofit organization that supports the work of doctors overseas.

Members of the Order of Malta process into the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels at the 2016 White Mass. (Victor Alemán)

For Frederick, the event is about recognizing medical professionals not only as workers, but as ministers, something she calls “an act of faith.” 

“Patients notice there is a difference when there is that kind of motivation in your practice,” she believes.

Dr. Posadas, a member of the Catholic Medical Association, said other oncologists in his field challenge him to put his faith in practice. 

“When you see them at the White Mass, you get energized, and you see you have more of a community. I’m not making a difference of one, there’s an army out there. And as you get more experience in the health system, you support each other and are able to have more say in how the health system is practiced. The White Mass is another way to stand up and be counted.”

Ann Farley, a registered nurse for more than 30 years currently working at the Keck Medical Center of USC's Ambulatory Care Clinic in Pasadena, has not only attended the Healthcare Professional Mass for years but also has been on the planning committee.

"I look forward to the Mass each year because it renews my heart and soul," said Farley. "I especially enjoy seeing the up and coming nursing and medical students who are the future of our healthcare professions in attendance.

"It is a great blessing to be a nurse especially now with the incredible challenges we are facing in light of the COVID pandemic and increased suffering of all people with poverty of mind, body and spirit. The Mass is God’s greatest gift to us and it is everything we need to renew our spirit and press forward. I am renewed in spirit with participating in this beautiful Mass each year."

Posadas said the coronavirus pandemic’s relentless strain on all doctors and nurses of all specialties put them in vulnerable positions when patients get into vulnerable positions, often asking if their life is worth living.

“Patients want to hear you speak to them as another human being, outside the white coat,” said Posadas, a parishioner with his wife at St. Victor Church in West Hollywood, near his hospital. 

“They are at a very delicate point. A lot of people in the medical field put information in your head about how you should act. But I never have trouble expressing my beliefs when they ask. They are fundamental life issues. When you can do that, patients are more comforted that you believe in something bigger and you’ll follow through with them. I’ve never found it a barrier to meet eye to eye with anyone.”

Even at a Jewish-affiliated hospital like Cedars Sinai, chaplains who are Catholic share the halls with ones from Protestant, Muslim, Armenian Orthodox and Unitarian faith backgrounds.

“They have a tremendous Catholic staff, and I’m grateful to God for that,” said Posadas. “They hold Mass here, and I’m never short of having a priest if someone is hurting and in need. They offer patients, and me, tremendous spiritual support.”

Rebecca Freeman, a board-certified interfaith chaplain at the Miller Children’s and Women’s Hospital in Long Beach, said she is looking forward to experiencing the Mass for the first time, even if only through a screen. Chaplains like herself have felt “under siege” this year, having to internalize so much of what they experience in the halls and rooms of hospitals.

“We have had a lot to process — fears and challenges and logistics with the pandemic, and the social narrative of the world now — so all that shifting and change has created a huge emotional response,” said Freeman, a graduate of the Franciscan School of Theology with a master’s degree in divinity.

“With high stress and fatigue, there’s also an elevated sense of wanting to connect in a whole way with people. This is a time to revisit the connection of the mind, body, and spirit with our health. It’s important for these events to happen and see people have a beautiful conversation around the self-care of the providers.”

Medical professionals pray during the 2017 White Mass. (Victor Alemán)

Younger participants have also played an important role in the rebirth of this Mass. High school choirs have been invited to sing in recent years, and a connection with the Mt. St. Mary’s Nursing School has also been established, as well as students from Providence High School in Burbank, the Catholic prep school founded by the Sisters of Providence.

Sister Nancy Jurecki, OP, chief mission integration officer for the Southern California region of the Providence Hospital System, said the Mass helps meet a need to keep future generations engaged.

“We have so many more young people on the horizon, getting them ready to enter the medical profession,” said Sister Jurecki.

Last April, as COVID-19 numbers rose, Sister Jurecki shared a video message on the Providence Institute for Human Caring website from Archbishop Gomez, who offered a word of encouragement for health care workers: “Trust in Jesus. He is with you always. Turn to him. Ask his protection and guidance. He will never, ever leave you.”

The simplicity of the statement still resonates with her today.

“I love how the archbishop has been such a wonderful supporter of health care, going back to when his father was a doctor in Mexico,” said Sister Jurecki.

“He has a real commitment to medical people in general and is always open to support those on the front lines. It makes me so proud of the commitment of the archdiocese. They show they really care, and that we are a ministry of the Church in a very real sense.”