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Triage

by Msgr. Robert L. Stern

I arrived at the emergency room of the hospital with my sick friend. “He needs to see a doctor right away,” I said. But, before we could see the doctor, he had to be screened by the triage nurse.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, the French word triage means “picking,” “sorting,” “choice” or “selection.” It has come to be used in English to describe a difficult and critical preselection process.

In this case, since there were too many patients to be seen by the doctor that afternoon, the triage nurse had to set the priorities and decide which cases were the more urgent.

As one who shares primary responsibility for making funding decisions at Catholic Near East Welfare Association, I often feel like a triage nurse.

Regretfully, there are too many needs and too many worthy requests for our aid for us to be able to respond positively to all. We’re forced to pick and choose among them.

In order to make informed and responsible decisions, we have to set clear priorities and criteria – which is easier said than done.

For example, should our first priority be helping Catholics? In this case, of the countries we serve, Ukraine should get the lion’s share of our attention, with its population of more than 4,000,000 Catholics.

Most of them are Catholic by tradition, but, after generations of Marxism, not what we in the West would consider “practicing.”

If practicing Catholics are the norm, then India with its dynamic Eastern Catholic churches numbering 3,400,000 should take first place.

Ironically, by this standard, the Holy Land, with only 90,000 Catholics, should get the least of our attention.

Should our first priority be the total number of Christians? Then, among the countries we serve, our concern should be for Russia, followed by Ethiopia, Ukraine, India and Egypt.

Should our prime criterion be poverty and suffering? From this point of view, Ethiopia heads the list. Armenia is in dire straits. Iraq, which normally is considered a wealthy country, now is in great need.

Are humanitarian or pastoral needs more important? Is food or medicine or clothing more important? Is emergency relief more important than long-term development? Which comes first, formation of persons or construction of buildings?

Our agency’s challenge is the same one each of us faces in our personal lives. The media overwhelm us with knowledge of human needs all over the world. Whom are we to help? and, how much?

In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus gives us some of the answer:

Whom do I help? Whoever, in the providence of God, crosses my path, whomever in need I personally encounter in my life’s journey.

How much do I help? As much as the other needs and I can.

Alas, there may need to be triage as regards our material resources, but may there never be a limit to our love!

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Msgr. Robert L. Stern, Secretary General of CNEWA