A group of medical professionals participate in the White Mass.
A group of medical professionals participate in the White Mass.
Named after a saint who is both an evangelist and a physician, St. Luke Parish, Toms River, has, for the past eight years, been especially focused on affirming those engaged in the vocation of healing during a special Mass held each year.

The Mass and Blessing for Healthcare Professionals, known as the White Mass, is celebrated by the parish close to the October feast day of St. Luke, who is also the patron saint of physicians. The observance dates back to the 1930s and the development of the Catholic Medical Association; it is named for the white medical garments worn by many in the medical community.

PHOTO GALLERY: Annual White Mass in Toms River

This year, the ninth annual Mass took place Oct. 16 in the parish church and honored all those who work in medical settings: physicians, nurses, nursing assistants, administrators, pharmacists, technicians, cooks, nursing home staff, hospice personnel, emergency personnel and hospital housekeepers. The Mass also brought together healthcare workers’ families, friends and well-wishers to express gratitude for their skill, devotion and compassionate care.

Father Robert Grodnicki, pastor and principal celebrant, expressed gratitude to his doctor and the entire team responsible for his own care during his recent hospitalization. “Since I was in isolation, I was never so happy to see my doctor every day and to see how hard everyone worked together.”

In reflecting on Luke’s Gospel, homilist Father Edward Reading of the Diocese of Paterson stated that Jesus instructed his believers to set forth, not alone, but in pairs “proclaiming the good news and curing diseases everywhere” (Luke 9:6). Father Reading drew a parallel to a doctor’s office, where everyone on staff refers to “our” patients, demonstrating a “community working together.”

Bringing that community together for this special Mass was the responsibility of a planning committee, headed by registered nurse June Brandes Chu. Invitations went out via flyers, e-mails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings with neighboring parishes, long-term care facilities, and other institutions. Brandes Chu said that the White Mass and blessing have been “meaningful for all of us, especially during the pandemic,” and that the committee aims to “honor everyone.”

Ann Tritak-Elmiger, a registered nurse and professor emeritus at Felician University, proclaimed the Word in the second reading from St. James, which describes the importance of faith combined with good work. At the social following the liturgy she spoke about how “beautiful for all of us it was for healthcare workers to come together to renew each other.”

Dr. Jess C. Alcid, a St. Luke parishioner for 15 years who regularly attends the White Mass, offered the reading from Sirach, “Make friends with the doctor, for he is essential to you … From God, the doctor has wisdom … Thus God’s work continues without cease in its efficacy on the face of the earth” (Sirach 38: 1-2, 8).

Dr. Alcid appreciated that the White Mass “re-centers” him. He felt it was encouraging to have special recognition, but that the liturgy and blessing are also a good reminder that as a physician, one’s life is “not all about the job.”

Finding this balance was a virtue also touched upon by Father Reading, who holds advanced degrees in pastoral counseling. He told the Mass attendees, “Your work is a real vocation, a healing ministry. When we do our work, God is working through us.” 

But he cautioned against becoming so devoted to one’s ministry that “you forget to meet the needs of your families.” Drawing a parallel to St. Luke, who was also a student, an artist and an aide to St. Paul, Father Reading advised that one should learn to find balance in life outside of work and other responsibilities, with hobbies or other interests.

A poignant moment of the Mass is the anointing of the hands of healthcare community members by the celebrants with the oil used in the anointing of the sick. Each healthcare worker had their palms blessed by Father Grodnicki, Father Reading or Father Albert Berner, a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Newark who was concelebrating that day.

The ritual echoed the prayer, displayed before Mass, of the Catholic Health Association of the United States: “Yours are the hands gently touching your patients …You lift the hearts of those who suffer ...Your hands celebrate the joy of healing …Your hands bless all they touch with the spirit of compassion …Thank you for sharing your abundance and gifts.”