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.