The HNP Today staff asked chaplains of Holy Name Province to reflect on their role and to share stories of their ministry — which is so important, especially during the holiday season when emphasis is on home and family.
The need for a friar to be a jack-of-all-trades is rarely more apparent than in the ministry of a hospital chaplain.
Chaplains minister to people in illness and death, counseling those who are having their worst days, many with loneliness and depression. Their work encompasses being compassionate to people of all faiths, in various stages of spiritual development, and even to those who have turned their backs on God or blame him for their illness.
Often, they minister not just to patients, but to entire families. And because patients are discharged so quickly from hospitals today, chaplains are always ministering to a new set of people. They must work quickly, always on their feet, as they walk the hospital halls seeing new patients.
Holy Name’s chaplains include postulants John Aherne and Pedro Corces of Wilmington, Del.; William Bried, OFM, St. Petersburg, Fla.,; Robert Norton, OFM, of Lincoln Park, N.J.; Gerald Paciello, OFM, Boston; Edwin Robinson, OFM, Butler, N.J.; John Schulmeister, OFM, Baltimore; Patrick Sieber, OFM, of Juniper Friary in Philadelphia; and those in Silver Spring, Md., who minister at the National Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda.
The season from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day is an especially important one for families and for friar chaplains — a time than can be depressing for the sick and dying.
“Advent is not a more special time,” said Gerald, director of spiritual care at Norwood, Mass., Hospital, approximately 30 minutes from Boston. “We try to emphasize every season in the liturgical year — through our services.”
The holidays can be tough for people who feel a lot of sadness and a sense of loss, he added, especially for patients in geriatric and psychiatric units. “Any time you’re alone, it’s a challenging time. The more lonely times are when we’re sick and not feeling well.”
Gerry recalls donning funny hats with his pastoral colleagues at the hospital last Christmas and caroling in patients’ rooms.
Patrick, the 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. overnight chaplain at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in downtown Camden, often works with people who are indigent and alone. “Our Lady of Lourdes is in a tough section of the city, where many other priests wouldn’t even venture out at night,” he said.
“My role as hospital chaplain is influenced by unique circumstances,” said Patrick, who has been at the hospital for 22 years. “I put on my habit, say a prayer and head to the hospital, which is only 10 minutes from the friary.”
“I have been called the ‘ice road trucker’ of Holy Name Province,” he said with a smile. “People say I should be on the TV show ‘Most Dangerous Jobs.’” In more than 3,200 anointings over the years, he has ministered to patients of varying faith backgrounds, Christians and Jews alike, and says he has to be all things to all people.
“Usually when I receive a call, the patient is in the last stages of death, or has already passed on. The prayers I say, and the prayers of anointing, can give comfort in any religion. It has little to do with me.” The area around the hospital is so dangerous that families often thank him for just showing up, he added.
William, the retiring chaplain at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, also commented on the diversity of people to whom he has ministered.
“The most rewarding part of the job is the diversity of people you meet in the hospital,” said Bill, who is retiring Dec. 30 after nine years at the hospital. “The first part of my day is seeing all the Catholics who have been admitted, offering them sacraments of the anointing and communion,” he added.
At 71, Bill, shown in photo above, said he would like to continue in ministry as long as his health is good, adding that he looks forward to returning to parish work. But first, he said, he will take a five-month sabbatical at the Spiritual Life Institute, a monastic retreat center in Crestone, Colo., from January to May.
“It’s the first time I’ve taken a sabbatical. I need to get away to write in my journal and reflect,” he said. He will be living in a hermitage in silence and solitude, Bill said, so he’ll have plenty of time for reading and listening to CDs of conferences that he hasn’t had time to attend over the years.
The best part of his role as a chaplain, Bill said, was giving people hope. “Some people are in pain, some want to talk, some are quiet. It can vary from day to day. You are dealing with every aspect of life, often dealing with people who are suffering and people who are dying. Cancer patients especially need someone to listen to them and hold their hand.”
Bill, who was featured in a recent St. Anthony’s Hospital newsletter, acknowledges, however, that this type of work can be draining. “I have a lot of energy, and when I’m at the hospital I go, go, go. When I get home, it hits me and I feel wiped out.”
But he finds the energy and inspiration he needs to return to work the next day from those patients who never complain, those who are going through awful treatments, and have hope in their heart. “When you see the patients and what they are struggling through, you realize you have nothing to complain about. You see them as an inspiration in your own struggles.”
Being a chaplain has also fostered his own spiritual growth. “You look at life and see how important it is, and you understand to value each day and each person as God’s gift,” Bill said.
A Comforting Presence
A chaplain is also a comfort to people without a spiritual life, said Gerry. “For people who don’t believe in God,” he said, “It means just being there for them and showing them love.”
He recalls talking to a terminal cancer patient who said she was afraid to die. “I talked to her about death, and we reflected on her life and how God was a part of her life. We talked about things she wanted to accomplish and things she did accomplish. It seemed that after our conversation, she was more at peace with her life. She went from anxiety to peace and she was able to let go.”
Chaplaincy, he added, is a ministry of presence and of listening. “In our listening, we are walking with people in their journeys. Wherever they are, you are with them. You aren’t directing the visit, they are. We are just listening.”
Pedro, a postulant who came to Holy Name after 22 years as a diocesan priest, emphasizes the need to be a good listener. Pedro is spending this year working in the chaplaincy program at St. Francis Hospital in Wilmington, along with John.
“Often, patients go into monologues,” Pedro said, “especially if they are lonely and they find a chaplain who is open and listening.”
The two comments he hears most often are: “I’m scared” and “I’m lonely.” Many of the comments come from people who have had addiction problems in their lives, and have alienated friends and relatives and are alone.
A Franciscan Ministry
Pedro said that working in a chaplaincy ministry is good for a postulant. “It is so Franciscan,” he said. “It’s very much being a Franciscan — being in touch with the poor, the broken, the lonely — to help them find God in all of that.”
Very different from his previous parish ministry, Pedro said he is learning from the chaplaincy program “that we’re here not to ask too many questions. It’s a human tendency to want to know everything. We’ve learned to let the person slowly and gently tell their story. We let the person unfold their story for you, and to put our curiosity on the back burner.” Chaplaincy also teaches one to respect the person and not be quick to judge..
All the chaplains agreed that it has been an honor to share in the spiritual life of the sick and the dying. Gerry sums it up: “Any time anybody puts their trust in you and opens up — it’s a real honor. When there’s a chemistry between you and another person — and you know you’re helping them out — it’s very rewarding.”
— Wendy Healy, a freelance writer living in Connecticut, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.