During a serious illness or health crisis, people often become more concerned about their spiritual well-being, yet priests cannot possibly visit every Catholic in hospitals, in nursing homes and the homebound. Lay Catholics increasingly are stepping in to provide a spiritual triage between patients and priests; assessing needs from simply wanting to talk to someone, to receiving the Eucharist or needing to see a priest.
Pastoral visitors need more than just a good heart, according to Denice Foose, coordinator for the Catholic Chaplain Corp (CCC) with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. They need training to understand how to best comfort patients. “It’s something several of us have talked for years,” she said. “We knew it was needed, and the priests were all on board with the idea.”
Trusting in “a bold instinct and God’s providence,” Foose submitted a proposal to Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) St. Luke’s Health. In January, they awarded a one-time grant of $900,000 to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston to provide more trained Catholic lay chaplains and pastoral visitors for patients in the Texas Medical Center’s seven hospitals and surrounding areas.
The training includes classroom instruction through St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, as well as direct patient experiences with a mentor. The first training in January included nearly 200 volunteers. A second session of classes will begin this fall. There also is a long-term goal to make this program a template to assist other dioceses through a long-distance learning program.
The face of the Church
“We want to train people to be the face of the Church for Catholics,” Foose explained. “Pastoral ministers must be willing to see anyone who requests a visit, so it is ecumenical by nature, but includes extensive Catholic theology to meet the needs of Catholic patients. The love of God is for everybody, so pastoral ministers serve anyone entrusted to them.”
She also pointed out that everyone benefits by this ministry. “Scientific studies show that addressing a patient’s spiritual needs reduces recovery time and thus reduces health care costs,” she said.
Deacon Al Vacek, director of CCC, is working with Foose to oversee the program and provide instruction. “This is a new paradigm,” he explained. “There are 9,200 beds within with Houston Medical Center, and approximately 20 percent will be Catholic, with only eight priests to handle that — the needs are staggering.”
According to Deacon Vacek, the plan includes a two-year training of lay chaplains to oversee around 80 pastoral visitors. “We have been doing this for 12 years, but now the training can be more comprehensive to offer high-quality care.” Training includes grief and bereavement, empathetic and active listening, ministering to children and personal spirituality and ministry.
A sign toward God
“This involves the corporal and spiritual works of mercy; consoling and comforting patients,” Deacon Vacek said. He shared an example in his own experience of entering into the room of a dying man who was very aloof and unapproachable regarding reception of the sacraments.
“He had not been to Mass in years,” Deacon Vacek explained. “I started using empathic listening, and he opened up about his anger, sadness and depression. He changed from defiance to sadness and wept.” The man had never talked to God about his pain because he felt too unworthy. After reassuring the man, Vacek offered to arrange for a priest to see him.
“His whole demeanor changed,” Deacon Vacek said. “He was pumped. He had been away from the sacraments for 28 years. Sacraments are the best thing, but Catholics have to be properly disposed. Pastoral care comes in letting people express their feelings and find healing.”
Rev. Dr. Theodore M. Smith, a United Methodist elder and chaplain who has worked in hospital ministry for almost 40 years, serves as director of Mission Integration at Baylor St. Luke’s and has helped to design and teach the courses.
“We can become a sign of this transcendent power toward the Church and toward God,” he said. “We are there to comfort patients, but we are not physicians. We help by providing a qualitative, empathic experience that they don’t usually have in society.”
Instruction covers everything from how to walk into a room and make an introduction, to ways to encourage confidence rather than fear, to training volunteers how to listen with empathy, offer appropriate prayers, assist with determining the type and urgency of sacramental ministry by a priest and how to respond with sensitivity to expressions of grief.
Smith pointed out that often the pastoral minister also has the opportunity to help family members. For instance, he once came across a woman with failing health whose son was taking care of her. “He shared that he felt isolated and lonely, especially at church, because people were always asking about his mother, but no one ever asked how he was doing as the caretaker.”
In addition to training volunteers, a new position called “lay chaplain” was created to coordinate the pastoral visitors’ ministry with the Catholic Chaplain Corps of priests. The lay chaplains assess whether to schedule the sacraments or make an emergency call to a priest.
One of the newly hired lay chaplains is Deacon Bill Wilson, a former manager of the Spiritual Care Department at St. Luke’s. He is now appointed at Baylor St. Luke’s. Even though he is an ordained deacon, he is filling the position of lay chaplain.
The lay chaplains, he said, facilitate spiritual services for patients and determine if a priest should be brought in. “I get called for many things; some patients aren’t even Catholic,” Deacon Wilson said. “I get calls in the middle of the night, and sometimes all they wanted was someone to pray with them.” According to Wilson, priests are called primarily for the sacraments and for people afraid to take sacraments in the hospital but are close to dying and haven’t been to confession.
Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.