GU Medical School Students Rest and Reenergize on Retreat
By Jennon Bell Hoffman
Cura personalis, or “care for the whole person” is the Catholic, Jesuit concept that suggests individualized attention to the needs of others, distinct respect for unique circumstances and concerns, and an appropriate appreciation for singular gifts and insights. Not only is it a foundational element of Ignatian spirituality but it is a founding principle of Georgetown University Medical Center. Which is why an overnight retreat for medical students is an important piece of the cura personalis toolbox.
After a hiatus of a handful of years, the Calcagnini Contemplative Center welcomed a group of Georgetown medical students over the weekend of September 9-10, 2023. Together, the group explored the intersection of spirituality and professional identity while experiencing Ignatian prayer, individual reflection, and group faith sharing during this first retreat since before COVID at the CCC. Michelle Siemietkowski, Catholic Chaplain for Spiritual Formation and Fr. Jim Shea, S.J., Medical School Chaplain, organized the retreat and offered reflections, while Dr. Eileen Moore, Associate Dean, Community Education and Advocacy, and Fr. Myles Sheehan, S.J., M.D., Director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, shared their experiences from their years of medical practice and student mentoring.
According to Fr. Shea, SJ, one of the most impactful ways to help medical students foster cura personalis in their future professions is to cultivate the practice now within themselves.
“In a medical school, you’re doing formation really — you’re trying to form a person to think and feel and act like a physician… not just as a scientist, but as somebody who can become a healer,” says Fr. Shea. “And if they’re going to be a healer, they need to be in touch with their own spirituality. How do they find meaning and hope? Are they in touch with their own selves? Because they need to do that if they’re going to make it through this ordeal of medical education.”
Stepping back from the anatomy lab or clinical rotations in psychiatry, pediatrics, and internal medicine, students were able to enjoy the refreshing peace of contemplative time away, tucked within community, prayer, and reflection. The picturesque grounds of the CCC provide ample space and natural beauty for reenergizing the soul and quiet contemplation.
Anna Stephan, a third-year medical student, found much-needed rest and rejuvenation on the retreat.
“I think this retreat was especially essential for medical students because during the fast pace of medical school there is such little time for slowing down, taking a step back, and taking time to reflect on your experience and nurture your spiritual self,” says Stephan. “These spaces are so important for creating physicians that are healthy and balanced, with hearts that are open and full enough to joyfully and sustainably give to their patients the holistic, person-centered care that they deserve.”
John DiBello, a second-year medical student, felt the retreat was an extension of his values, both educational and spiritual.
“I specifically chose to come to Georgetown for medical school for experiences such as this retreat. My hope was that attending a Jesuit school would help me deepen my life of faith and have a stronger foundation so that I can best serve my patients in the future,” says DiBello. “It’s been a gift to be able to see community members like Fr. Shea, Dr. Moore, and Fr. Sheehan committed to reincorporating that sense of mission at our school.”
Fr. Shea says an experience like the retreat underscores the connection between teaching the future medical professionals to know their true selves and connecting with their future patients.
“Students [have to] be able to form relationships with patients that will be deeply helpful for the patients but also deeply satisfying for the physician,” says Fr. Shea. “It’s a sacred trust, so how do you nurture that sense of calling? How do you find what they need, including experiences of community, of sharing on a deeper level, or the sense of calling? If you don’t have the capacity to get close to people, what will that mean? And you don’t get close to people unless you know yourself.”
While finding the time to step away from the rigorous schedule of a medical student isn’t easy, those who attended found the weekend more than worth it, not just for the break from the hustle, but also for the lasting impact the weekend’s lessons bestowed.
“For me, Ignatian spirituality, faith formation, and discernment are intimately tied to my pursuit of medicine. The Jesuit values are what give meaning to my work, they are something I always return to if I find myself questioning my path’s meaning or disheartened by the numerous challenges and issues with the medical system,” says Stephan. “Feeling a deep connection to — and grounded in — something greater than myself is what allows me to connect with my patients on a human level, and strive wholeheartedly to make them feel genuinely cared for and dignified.”
Encouraged by the response from the students and alumni, Fr. Shea is excited for future retreats and opportunities to help medical students use the Ignatian principles and guiding core values of Georgetown University to continue to flourish in their professional and personal lives.
“That’s what an in-touch Catholic medical school is going to try — to find the ways to foster that sense of spirituality,” says Fr. Shea. A retreat, he says, offers students the tools of how busy people can find some sense of daily practice in their lives to lessen the feelings of intense overwhelm, pressure, and anxiety.
“Medical education is an ordeal—it’s too much!—students are drinking out of a fire hose,” says Fr. Shea. “As a Jesuit Catholic medical school, we ask ourselves: How do we foster that spiritual exploration? How do they come to know themselves, to be centered and spiritually grounded? Because if they are not, they are not going to be good doctors, good healers, and not going to be satisfied with the work they do.”
The Calcagnini Contemplative Center first opened in 2013 on 55 acres in Bluemont, VA, and offers Georgetown students, faculty, alumni, administration, and staff quiet, restful space for day-long and overnight retreats. To learn more about retreats offered at the CCC, visit their website.
Jennon Bell Hoffmann is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago.