Gordon Self

August 26, 2013

The summer months are nearing an end, and by now many readers will have traveled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres on vacation road trips to beautiful places across the country. In Alberta especially, many scenic highways offer breathtaking views along the way that are as spectacular as the traveler's destination itself.

While highways are a means to enjoying such life-giving experiences, unfortunately, they can also be deadly. This past summer I noted how many crosses were erected alongside the roads I drove, marking the spot where travelers have lost their lives in motor vehicle collisions.

I silently made the sign of the cross myself as I drove past these roadside markers, praying for the victims and the families who regularly attend to the memorial sites as evidenced by the fresh flowers and other objects hanging from the cross.

My heart goes out to any reader who might have lost family on the roads, and who know personally the meaning and source of consolation associated with this act of remembrance.


For Catholics and many Christians, the cross is a redemptive sign of hope. Through Christ's suffering and death, we have been given the promise of eternal life. The cross symbolizes the paschal mystery, meaning that the path or road to salvation entails facing - not avoiding or going around - the realities of life.

Placing a cross where a loved one died is both an expression of faith in the resurrection, as well as a sober reminder of the tragedy that occurred. It can serve as a reminder for both the family as well as travelers that may help prevent similar accidents from occurring, as well as providing some consolation for those grieving the loss.

As human beings, we are hardwired for symbols. They communicate meaning in powerful and immediate ways that can change our behaviour and outlook on life.

For these reasons, crosses are often associated with Catholic hospitals, as a source of hope, strength and consolation for the sick and dying who are cared for within its walls.


There is great comfort in looking up from your hospital bed to see the crucifix on the wall, as a reminder that Christ is with you in your suffering, and that you are not alone.

Ethically, we are also influenced by symbols and other visible reminders to help us make good choices. We are busy people, often pressured by limited resources of money or time. If we are not careful, that lack of resources can result in mistakes as traumatic or life-altering as vehicle mishaps.

Like the paschal mystery symbolized in the cross, there may be personal and professional decisions we make that are not always convenient, perhaps even involving some degree of hardship, even suffering, but ones that nonetheless offer the most life-giving outcomes.

This is another reason the cross is such a powerful symbol in Catholic health care. We must make many clinical and organizational ethical decisions each day that are consistent with our values, even if those decisions are difficult or inexpedient.

Disclosing medical error, for example, or admitting other occasions when we have failed to provide the best quality care possible is certainly not flattering to the organizational ego, especially if it results in negative press, diminished public profile or even lawsuits.


Nevertheless, our mission, values and ethical principles call us to take responsibility for our actions, and to seek the best way to prevent such harm from occurring in the future. Creating a culture of quality and safety involves candid conversations.

We owe it to the vulnerable patients and residents we serve to provide safe, quality care. That means being able to commit to ethical reflection and corrective action, even if it means picking up our cross and feeling the full weight of this responsibility.

There is no redemption from error unless we are prepared as persons or organizations to take responsibility for our actions. We symbolize this commitment through many public statements, policies and practices, including the cross in our very logo, reminding us of our responsibilities as moral agents.

What symbols along the roadways of your own life remind you of your ethical commitments? What symbols call you to slow down, to reflect and to navigate thoughtfully the difficult choices you face in your life at this time?

(Gordon Self is vice president, mission, ethics and spirituality for Covenant Health and can be reached at