Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Hospital Priest Chaplain: The Unsung Comforter

The Hospital Priest Chaplain: The Unsung Comforter


He works on Christ's team six days a week, as he walks the many floors of the hospital, visiting the rooms of the sick and dying. His primary goal, under God, is working for fellow human beings, patients, who are at their most vulnerable. They are the sick ones in hospitals who are often frightened even terrified, angry, lonely, confused, worried, disoriented. Sometimes, when he visits them, he is warmly welcomed, sometimes ignored, sometimes, rejected or insulted. In addition to his patients, there are others: family members, hospital staff, physicians, nurses, administrators, all wander, at times, into his field of pastoral care for various forms of ministry.. 

Sometimes, he might get a stipend, sometimes not. But, stipend or no stipend, his motivation and reward is serving the Lord in people who are seriously ill as well as serving those hospital professionals who even unconsciously hunger for God. For the most part, he works Pro Deo, i.e. for God. He often goes unnoticed. Sometimes, he can be made to feel "tolerated", that his contribution is not important or that he may be allowed to do his "thing" after the really important ones are finished. But, regardless, he goes on in the knowledge and belief which he personally possesses . He is often taken for granted. He gets little acknowledgement. He gets little chance for building relationships with patients who are often hospitalized for very short periods. He is constantly adjusting to new patients and grieving for those discharged. The toll on his neurologic system can rise to painful levels.

But who is he? He is the Catholic chaplain of the hospital. He is the Catholic priest who, under God, has been "sent" to serve and comfort the suffering ones with the unique gifts which Christ gives to His people.
But what kind of service? What does he actually do? What does he actually offer?
The psychosomatic dimension of the human being is fairly well accepted in the medical Community. This simply means that in all people there is an intrinsic link between bodily functions and a non-physical entity which is variously called soul, psyche, emotions, temperament. These two factors constitute the human person. Further, they affect each other. What happens in one, invariably affects the other, in some fashion, sometimes in a major way. This is enormously obvious to those who work in the healing arts.

Positive attitudes in the patient are of great value in the healing process. Assurance and hope from helping people have had remarkably good effects in "getting people better." The reverse is painfully obvious. A gloomy face on a nurse or physician can generate, in a patient's soul, a negative suspicion that "something might be very wrong with me." This could complicate the healing. "Bedside manners" is probably not the most strenuous course offered in Medical schools.

While clearly the human personality of any Catholic priest will similarly vary as with medical personnel, he has a series of "tools" which are not only unavailable to anyone else but which have an enormous capacity to "pick up" the feelings of any patient. These "tools" do not depend upon his personal charm or lack of it. They are sacraments which operate as the gift of Jesus, even through the most emotionally retarded priest. I recall my own experience when I was hospitalized with an M.I., myocardial infarct or heart attack. I was alarmed and angry at my misfortune. Suddenly, the hospital priest chaplain burst into my room and peremptorily announced, without ceremony, that he was going to give me the Sacrament of the Sick, the anointing. When he had concluded the administration of the sacrament, I almost instantly relaxed. I felt peaceful and calm. I had a sensational recovery which has lasted to the present . Psychological? Spiritual? Emotional? I know is that the anointing was priceless to me. That priest chaplain was invaluable to me. Rather than terrify me, he, if brusque and mechanical, through the anointing, brought me a palpable peace.
Obviously, some people have inborn calm, tact and gentleness. They bring solace, assurance and sensitivity wherever they go. The Religious Sisters I know who are hospital chaplains offer a wonderful, faithful help. As do the many non-Catholic chaplains, male and female, who tirelessly support their congregants. They are gifted by God to do the great humane and holy work they do. But there is some dimension differential which smacks of the ontological and which separates the priest chaplain from all others. By way of an example, I offer this slightly earthy little "nugget" illustrating how confused one can get. It was backroom rumor in the New York Archdiocese, some years ago, that a Sister chaplain watched, with a touch of envy or even bitterness, a priest chaplain administer the Sacrament of the Anointing. Apparently, completely missing the point of Jesus, she said " If I had a------------, I would be able to do that, too!" The priest, unflappable in his attempt to educate Sister, replied: "That's funny. I always use my thumb. "

The basic difference between the priest chaplain and any other chaplain is his power, through ordination, to offer Sacraments. It is neither biology nor human gifts. It is this marvelous institution established by Jesus, in Person, which is called "Priesthood." It is this priesthood which confers so much peace of soul. A nice personality and a gentle, sweet spirit are in the area of "Bonus" and while much to be desired are not of essence.

Most believing people, certainly Christians, do have some sense of moral guilt consequent to personal misdeeds or to inappropriate thoughts or to culpable moral omissions in their lives. This is not neurotic guilt which is so destructive and of a separate order. This is a healthy guilt which can burden a righteous soul yearning for a definite sense of forgiveness from the Father in Heaven. This can be a burden blotting out peace and even one which, in the patient's mind, might jeopardize his eternal salvation. The dis-ease of inner turbulence can be magnified when one is confined to a hospital bed, especially if the patient is near death. The presence of Jesus through the Sacraments is beyond calculation.

Dr. Carl J. Jung, the renowned Swiss psychiatrist and intimate of Dr. Sigmund Freud, once remarked that he wished he could do in lengthy analysis and many sessions what the Catholic priest can do in a few minutes in the Sacrament of Penance (Reconciliation).The peace and relief he describes is replicated in thousands of Catholics who are absolved of their sins not only in the Sacrament of Penance but also in the Anointing of the Sick so available through the priest chaplain, even without oral confession. The Catholic believes that after "going to confession" he is forgiven by God. His slate is clean. He has a new start. He has had a New Resurrection. No wonder he "feels good."

This "absolution" occurs not through mere Catharsis, venting or oral articulation of sins. Confession is only a part of sacramental peace. There is something more, namely, the absolution from sin by Christ, working through His own priest. Catholics have always known this reality which is felt-perceived after the Sacramental experience. As a practicing psychologist I understand how relieving it is for my patients to articulate deeply locked secrets but as a practicing Catholic myself I have personally known the enormous lightening of heart which the Sacrament of Penance brings to the soul. They are two different experiences.

A very good woman was complaining to me about the restrictions she felt in her work with residents in a Nursing home where elderly folk wished to lament the sins of their earlier lives. She said, in a sincere desire to be helpful, "I wish I could hear their confessions." She saw so many people loaded with real, not neurotic, guilt. To which I replied, somewhat impishly, " You can hear all the confessions you want but you can't absolve from sins."

It is the priesthood of Jesus which absolves, not human intervention. Conveniently for the patient, some chosen men, picked by the Lord, are "there" at the bedside, with His own power. The hospital priest chaplain is one of those so chosen.
The uplifting effect of this sacrament for patients, in the sometimes cold,
mechanical, super professional, scary environment of a hospital, is almost exponentially magnified. If no one else is grateful or assured, the patient surely is, especially when he is at his most vulnerable state. But there is another huge asset the priest chaplain brings to the sick, the Eucharist. 

Because he is a priest, this chaplain, he and he alone, can celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass from which comes the great gift of the Eucharist, the very Center of Catholic spirituality. This Eucharist, believed by Catholics to be the Body and Blood of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine is brought by the chaplain (or by others designated by him) to the bedside of the patient. For those seriously ill, it is called "Viaticum" or Food for the journey. Hospital chaplains can attest to the visible peace, relaxation and resignation experienced by patients after receiving the Viaticum. Who could ever adequately describe the power of the Eucharist to bring a sense of quiet to the sick? Words fail because tjos experience is beyond words except perhaps for mystics. But we do know that without the priest chaplain, the Eucharist would not be possible. 

Sometimes, in urgent situations he baptizes persons who in danger of dying within a short time, from infants newly born to adults of various age levels and stations in life. By his presence or that of surrogates like physicians or nurses, a soul is prepared to meet Christ for Paradise.

All the above constitute the foundational role of the Catholic priest chaplain. Hopefully, he is kind and patient and charming and funny and generous and friendly. If not, he still can, through his sacred priesthood, bring Jesus to a child of God who is anyone lying in that trying state of pain, illness or fear. So, who is he, this priest hospital chaplain? Why, he is the Ambassador of Christ. 

1The masculine pronoun is used because the focus of this essay is on the Catholic priest who is always male. There are female hospital chaplains, mainly religious sisters, who do enormously helpful, productive and holy work as do many non-Catholic chaplains, both male and female. The matrix of my presentation is that of a sacramental nature which is reserved to Catholic priests. I focus on the indescribable benefits of Christ's sacraments.

 2 Known in Catholic theology as "ex opere operato" i.e. the effect of the Sacrament is through Jesus in the very bestowal of the Sacrament itself. It does not depend upon the holiness, intelligence, or charm of the priest. It operates through the priesthood of Christ in every validly ordained priest.

 3She was obviously referring to a part of the male anatomy. Blessed Pope John Paul II said: "The fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church received neither the mission proper to the apostles nor the ministerial priesthood clearly shows that non-admission of women to priestly ordination cannot mean that women are of lesser dignity nor can it be construed as discrimination against them."

The restriction of priesthood to males is based not on anatomy but on the example of Jesus. So thinks the Catholic Church.

4 Chosen: who knows why? Not because priests are better than others. Elementary! God for His own reasons choses whom He chooses.








Are Moderns Embarrassed by their Religious Beliefs?

Are Moderns Embarrassed by their Religious Beliefs?


A little Jewish boy comes home from his very first day at Hebrew school to meet his excited, loving mother. She asks him what he learned his first day. So he animatedly told her his impressions. He told her about this bad guy in Egypt who treated the Jews very, very badly. So when the Jews ran away from his cruel treatment he chased them with a huge army which had tanks and drones and big guns. But the Jews turned around with their machine guns, fighter planes, and nuclear armaments, and mowed down the Egyptians until there wasn't a single one left. Then the commanding General, named Moses, moved the Jews on to the Promised Land across the Red Sea.
His mother said, a bit reprovingly, to the little six year old: "Come on now, Irving, they didn't tell you that in school, did they?" "Well no", Irving said, " but you would never believe what they did tell us…."
Even to the mind of a six year old who knows nothing of historico- critical analytic methods of understanding scripture, the Red Sea story might stretch credulity. Kids have remarkable abilities to fantasize and to "story tell" but for smart kids, this might push the envelope. The idea of a whole army being drowned, perhaps thousands in number, as the waters of a deep sea parted, engulfing them, while the Jews got safely to the other side---this can be a lot to swallow. Yet, this is what we believe and teach officially. If we are believing Jews, as adults, are we embarrassed when we articulate this and other startling events in Jewish history? Did Jacob really wrestle with an angel? Was there a "burning bush" which didn't burn? Or do we go into endless convoluted circumlocutions to try to explain to an unbelieving world that our teachings are true and reasonable? Are we more comfortable discussing Obama care or social injustice?
In effect, the real question is: "Do we really believe it?" And how do we believe it? The Jewish Religion does teach the above, at least in substance. Reverentially, meaningfully and beautifully. But is it, as in the contemporary Christian community (I speak mainly of my own, the Catholic Christian one), sometimes a matter of mere "social" religion? Belonging to some form of religious group for social acceptability or political advantage or family cohesion or simple emotional laziness? Is it that truth doesn't matter? Is it only form or appearance that matters? Or being "with it"? Or is it embarrassing to say that I am religious or is it that I secretly believe certain things which others call 'Hokey" and childish? Do I fear their negative or mocking appraisal? Or perhaps I use the cop-out ruse that I don't wear my religion on my sleeve and am a private person and so on and on.
Recently, I was watching a Television presentation on a religious Channel which showed a very old production of Christ's Resurrection and His ascension into Heaven. With me were several self professed Christians, several of whom snickered as the Divine Christ slowly ascends from the earth to join His Father in Heaven. Angels solemnly inform the Apostles that the Lord is going to His glory. Heavenly music plays in the background as the actor portraying the Lord lifts his eyes upwards and then slowly fades away. Apparently, snickering shows how mature and balanced one really is—so unlike the simple peasants who say Rosaries and make Novenas!
Granting the inferior technology of 40 years ago and the fantastic advances made in television production and the overacting of ham actors, the message of Christ is still the same. This is what we officially believe. i.e. that Jesus did ascend into Heaven physically. That angels did speak to the Apostles. For the scoffers and the "with it" people who "Supermarket shop" religiously about what they choose to believe or disbelieve, the Creed recited at every Sunday Mass shouts out that Jesus did ascend into heaven-------. We believe what is revealed to us by the Lord or we do not. If we do not, it is absurd to say: "I am a Catholic." To say that I am a Catholic and at the same time to say, in one way or another, that I disbelieve the Ascension, the Eucharist and the Divinity of Christ is the height of dishonesty and maybe even hypocrisy!
Fuzziness of thought doesn't cut it! Either I am or I am not Catholic! What also shouts out is the voice of the Lord Himself Who, in Matthew 10, sternly teaches that those who will not acknowledge Him before others will not be acknowledged before the Father in Heaven. Lack of courage always has a downside!
Christians still believe that Jesus physically ascended to His Father in the sight of the Apostles on the very site in Jerusalem which is visited by countless believers, including me. Christians still believe that God became incarnate in Jesus. Christians still believe that Jesus becomes present at every Mass under the appearance of bread and wine.
Yet, there are Catholics in the political and other realms, in the sophisticated cocktail parties of Beverly Hills or Manhattan's upper West side, who, while hesitantly admitting their Catholic affiliation, with great airs of sophistication, adroitly elude any articulation, explanation or defense of the Catholic positions—especially if it involves sexuality or devotions associated with little old Irish, Polish or Italian women whispering or mumbling Rosaries. Or even worse—the stuff little kids do, such as go to confession or pray to Guardian angels. From their behavior, one might understandably assume their unbelief. Or, at least, that their Faith means very little to them. Paradoxically, one often hears surprising wisdom from the washerwoman type and sheer drivel from the snob-smelling Catholic who has "made it" in his/her chosen way of life. Wasn't It the great thinker from Hippo, Augustine, who suggested that Faith gives understanding to the previously inaccessible "mine" of Knowledge? And not the other way around?
Stephen Carter, a deep thinking law professor at Yale, once wrote about his concept of "Integrity" and Its constituent parts. There are three such parts, he noted. One, first, a person must clearly decide what he really does believe in his heart. Those values which are most meaningful to him. Secondly, he acts and lives in accordance with those beliefs. And thirdly, he is willing to articulate and defend those beliefs in a relatively public manner, regardless of consequence. One wonders, in the light of such a schema, how many politicians and public figures who claim to be Catholic, have Integrity? What, then, do people fear?
I side track for a broad background of my point. Namely, guaranteed freedom to religious expression. While presently the First Amendment with its "free exercise of religion" is under attack, we are, right now, guaranteed by law and tradition, the freedom to speak and profess whatever we want religiously. There is no legal position, at present, of punishment should one voice an unpopular point. Sadly, this may change but the American tradition has gloried in the freedom given to its citizens to espouse unpopular causes. It is tragic that public officials are reluctant to speak up however infrequently the need may arise.


We note, also, from the American Declaration of Independence, with satisfaction and pride, that human rights are not given by government, but by God, the Creator. Agreement or approval from others is irrelevant. These rights are called "inalienable" (or unalienable) since they cannot be withdrawn by human beings, i.e. government. Government's role is to protect these rights not to "regulate" them. This is a question of Religious Liberty no matter how Extremists in Government try to mask the reality.
This is not a Catholic question only even though contemporary politicians struggle to paint the matter as such. Nor is integrity only a Catholic problem. To hide one's real beliefs because of some kind of fear or timidity is blatant non-integrity! All human beings are called to aspire to the higher levels of human development. Not to hypocrisy! Or to the sale of one's soul for political position or applause. Of course all groups have their share of bigots and small minds who mock "simplicity" with a strange kind of bitterness. (Is this a deep and unconscious nostalgia for a lost innocent past?)
But the inner cleanliness and self respect that comes with transparency is priceless both for the individual and society. Whether I am Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Druidic or atheist, let me be honest and jettison pretense. In a paraphrase of a famous American slogan: "Damn the political correctness. Full speed ahead!"

1We believe that the Incarnation of God in Jesus was the greatest moment in History!
2The Present administration is reportedly trying to change the phrase "freedom of religion" to "freedom of worship". This would have gigantic effect on religious behavior, effectively marginalizing religion strictly to within the physical walls of the synagogue, church or mosque. Any practice of open religion in the Public Square could be actionable or illegal.