Hospital chaplains are the face of mercy to the sick

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we have been called to give greater emphasis to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. These works of mercy are a few particular ways that we are called to serve our brothers and sisters, be ministers of the mercy of God. They are always relevant, always applicable, in every age.

One of these corporal works of mercy is visiting and caring for the sick.

Here are the stories of two deacons — one from New Jersey, the other from Texas — who live out the corporal work by extending mercy to the sick and dying on a daily basis.

Extending mercy in New Jersey

Deacon Gerard Jablonowski is the executive director of VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey. Part of Deacon Jablonowski’s duties include overseeing the hospital chaplaincy program for the diocese.

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Jablonowski

Deacon Jablonowski sees the role of the hospital chaplain as uniquely important, and it is an opportunity to serve a population that too often can go unconsidered.

“We provide spiritual counseling and comfort to our hospitalized parishioners as well as to their families and hospital staff who care for them through their illness,” Jablonowski said.

While priest-chaplains have the responsibility of administering the anointing of the sick and hearing confessions, there are many ministerial duties they share with deacons and laypeople.

“Both priests and deacons provide pastoral care through their presence and prayers with the patients and families and often administer holy Communion daily to patients who request it,” Deacon Jablonowski said. Deacons are also charged with coordinating the work of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion who assist in bringing the Eucharist to patients and also work with local priests to ensure a priest is available for sacramental emergencies for patients near death.

Deacon Jablonowski detailed one of the challenges that arises is confusion among patients and their families in regards to the different roles held by priests and deacons. A deacon’s inability to confer the anointing of the sick or to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation and offer absolution can cause confusion or frustration on the part of the patients. After a brief explanation, Deacon Jablonowski said, the patient or family members typically understand.

While a challenge, to be sure, the “most challenging part is to depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to lead the conversation and words exchanged during the visit. To learn always to listen and share empathy, not sympathy, with the patient. To accept them, where they are, and help them find where they need or want to be in their relationship with God and His Church,” Deacon Jablonowski said. “To find the right words of comfort for those who are dying and for their families as they grieve the loss. To help families and staff deal with the unexplainable when tragedy strikes. To accept God’s will as mystery and truth.”

For Deacon Jablonowski, the rewards of being a hospital chaplain are the many graces that come from the ministry.

“The graces that flow from the pastoral visits to the sick, as seen in their smiles, their hope and their conversion to accept their suffering, leads the minister into experiencing these same graces,” he said. "Just as the patient and their families draw strength and comfort from the visit, so do we, as ministers to the sick, draw a special sense of happiness, hope and comfort in God’s presence among us. We come to know ourselves even better, as we share ourselves with others in their time of illness, weakness and vulnerability.”

The corporal works of mercy, including visiting those who are ill, have gained renewed emphasis during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, inaugurated by Pope Francis.

“Due to the attention and awareness that the Jubilee of Mercy brings to the corporal works of mercy, the faithful in the diocese are especially supportive and more aware of the work we as chaplains are doing to be agents of God’s mercy,” Deacon Jablonowski said. “We are affirmed in our work by this Jubilee Year bringing our ministry to the forefront of the Church’s work. The resources we need are always made available as part of the diocesan effort to spread the word of God’s mercy among his people.”

Ministry’s rewards

Deacon Bruce Corbett of the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, has been active in hospital ministry since 2005. He has ministered to patients at numerous hospitals.

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Corbett

“I feel having the opportunity to help someone find comfort during a challenging time in their life is a special grace,” he said.

Ministering as a hospital chaplain brings unique rewards, Deacon Corbett said. When considering the most rewarding part of his vocation, Deacon Corbett said: “When you see the worry lines on someone’s face relax and their body language changes to a more open gesture. You know the Holy Spirit is at work.”

There are certainly challenges inherent in work as a hospital chaplain, but by the grace of God, these can often become grace-filled moments.

“Overcoming the feeling of uselessness when I am unable to help someone find comfort” is at the top of the list of challenges for Deacon Corbett. Hospital chaplains often minister to people going through unimaginably difficult times — and quite often to people whose earthly life is coming to an end.

There are also numerous logistical issues that can arise and even get in the way of effective chaplaincy — and some of these issues are particular struggles for deacons.

Some challenges to hospital ministry are administrative in nature — getting a patient list from the hospital, for instance. For Catholic patients, occasionally locating a priest for anointing of the sick can be quite a challenge, he says. However, Deacon Corbett insists that with patience, these challenges are manageable.

Deacon Corbett said the actions of Pope Francis, as well as bishops, priests, religious and laypeople all over the world, have demonstrated a renewed emphasis on a lived mercy, one that is made manifest in such concrete acts as visiting the sick.

“For me,” Deacon Corbett said, “caring for the sick is bringing a positive and friendly smile to someone who may be scared. It’s having the patience to allow someone in pain who is angry to vent. It’s praying with and for people who are sick. It’s listening to the concerns of the patient and the family. Caring for the sick is allowing the Holy Spirit to work through you to help people in need.”

Deacon Corbett reflected on the ways that mercy can be lived in a particular way during this Jubilee Year of Mercy, especially through the corporal works of mercy. Visiting the sick, bringing the grace and mercy and peace of God to those who are seriously ill, is a way to be an instrument of God on earth.

“God shows us mercy every moment of the day, and as a Christian, we should show mercy to each other. Mercy is so much more than the corporal or spiritual works of mercy. Mercy is caring. Mercy is nonjudgmental. Mercy is helping. Mercy is being present. Mercy is listening. Mercy is believing. Mercy is companionship. Mercy is leading. Mercy is following. Mercy is a touch. Mercy is a smile. Mercy is remembering. Mercy is a kind word, especially when we don’t want to give it.”

Paul Senz writes from Oregon.

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