Tomorrow, September 26, the Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Saints Cosmas and Damian. Along with the Evangelist Saint Luke, the two are patron saints of medical doctors, as well as surgeons and pharmacists.

Although they practiced medicine in the third century, the life and witness of these two saints have an important message for medical professionals of good will in every time period, especially today.

The two saints were twin brothers who were born in Arabia. Both of the siblings were trained medical doctors and they were renowned for their compassionate practice of the medical sciences of their day. In particular, the two were well-loved because they accepted no payment for their services.

This generous gift to their patients won them the title “the unmercenaries,” since even in the early world many medical practitioners were notorious for their dismissive and mercantile exercise of medicine.

In commemorating these two Christian saints, the Church highlights the high calling of the medical professional to be a servant, friend, and companion to the sick and suffering. While many within the human family may be uncomfortable with the sick, or see them as a source of revenue or experimentation, or as a threat or a menace, the medical professional is summoned to be the advocate and defender of those who are ill, suffering or dying.

Even if all others turn against the sick, the doctor – as the one who is most especially accompanying and caring for the sick – is called to be the sign of contradiction and exhort society and culture about the value of all human persons and the specific dignity of those who are ill or vulnerable.

Cosmas and Damian lived this way of life, just like so many other good doctors throughout human history.

Today, it appears the medical community is struggling with its own definition of what the medical professional is supposed to be in the world. Some wish to see the doctor in utilitarian terms: she’s only a technician within the medical sciences whose job it is to fix the human body.

The mechanistic overtures of such a summary should disturb anyone of good will, and cause alarm to any patient who is being seen by a doctor with such a perspective. And yet, such doctors tend to be good mechanics of the body. They do a good job, or they produce good research.

Is such productivity enough when the human family speaks of medical care?

Pope Francis has a few things to say about the threat of productivity in human care and the “throwaway” culture it tends to breed. The pontiff has entered the wrestling ring and offers a few thoughts on how to define the medical doctor.

He relies on the example of saints such as Cosmas and Damian, as well as the long line of medical doctors of good will within multiple religious and cultural traditions who have always sought to care for and journey with the sick.

Pope Francis has made himself very available to the medical community, and has addressed or met with medical associations, groups, congresses, and conferences on several occasions. In each situation, the pope turned what was expected to be a typical visit into a very unexpected personal encounter with the doctors present.

He has made this pastoral switch by both emphasizing his esteem for the medical community as well as his understanding of the demands, fatigue, and difficulties of practicing medicine. As he so often does, Pope Francis disarms possible adversaries by his meekness and sincere interest in others.

In suggesting a definition of the medical doctor, Pope Francis does not enter the ring as a removed teacher or final arbiter. Instead, he models the very way of life he recommends to the medical community.

And so, when he tells medical doctors to “put more heart into your hands” since human life and its dignity has been placed precisely in their hands, the pope is applying the standards of virtue within his own vocation to the medical community. His witness gives this teaching credibility.

Pope Francis told the medical community: “The doctor’s identity and commitment depend not only on scientific knowledge and technical competence, but principally on the attitude of compassion and mercy towards those who suffer in body and spirit. Compassion does not mean pity, it means ‘suffering with.’”

Such a gentle exhortation has force from this pope because of his own life of mercy, and the compassion that he has shown to so many vulnerable or forgotten groups within the human family.

In the end, Pope Francis is bringing the spirit of Saints Cosmas and Damian to a medical community that is in a cultural wrestling match looking for a definition of the medical professional.

In passing along the spirit of good doctors through the ages, the pope is offering pastoral guidance to the definition of the medical professional as well as a help in answering the questions about who the medical doctor is called to be, how she is to practice medicine, and what the human family can expect from her.