Vale Catherine Hamlin

Mark Stephens reflects on the life of Catherine Hamlin, and how her faith drove her to serve Ethiopian women suffering obstetric fistula.

It’s been a week when our collective vulnerability has been on display like never before: the asthmatic looking for sold-out Ventolin; the grandmother isolated from the outside world; the airline worker who just lost their job. We don’t need to look far to see people in need.

Yet for most of us our capacity to see the needs of others is a gesture not a posture. Rarely has it become an ingrained habit. In the middle of this chaotic week we learned of the death of Catherine Hamlin. Hamlin was an Australian obstetrician and gynaecologist who spent the vast majority of her life in Ethiopia. For Hamlin, serving the needs of others was a lifestyle, not an episode. Her focussed attention was directed to poor women suffering obstetric fistula, a condition with consequences both physically painful and socially stigmatising. These were forgotten women, sitting at the margins, suffering in silence and shame. Hamlin’s patient work in creating a dedicated network of hospitals, clinics, and health care workers brought transformation to the lives of more than 60,000 women.

It is no secret that Hamlin’s faith stood at the centre of her actions. And so it should not surprise that her life echoes something important about the person of Jesus. The Gospels speak regularly of Jesus as an itinerant healer. But the people receiving Jesus’ care were never simply restored in body. They also were brought back to community. Lepers starved of touched. Haemorrhaging women who had been constantly shunned. Hamlin’s compassion was driven by a vision that the excluded could be included, and that human flourishing comes through wholeness in every area of life: the physical, the social, and, yes, even the spiritual.