Friday, October 10, 2008

Hospital Ministry in Crisis: No Chaplains

For Catholic patients in local hospitals Church leadership is “failing in its responsibility to provide the celebration of the sacraments in a timely and available manner,” writes Rev. Michael Tegeder. And under current archdiocesan policies “there is no solution in sight.”

We are blest in Minnesota to have some great medical centers. The Mayo, Fairview-University, and Abbott Northwestern readily come to mind. More locally we have Fairview Southdale and Methodist Hospitals. But when I talk to medical personnel, they often tell me that if they were to be in an accident they would want to be taken to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC). Indeed, each year the U.S. News and World Report cites the 100 best hospitals in the United States, and HCMC is ranked at the top for critical care.

Patients come with traumatic injuries from all over the Midwest. Last week I was at HCMC visiting a parishioner and was shocked to find out that there is no longer a priest chaplain assigned there. The Chaplain’s Department was told by the Archdiocese that no priest is currently available and that patients should call their parishes to have sacramental care. Of course, many of the patients are poor and homeless and have no home parish, and others are at a great distance from their parishes. The main responsibility of church leadership is to provide the celebration of the sacraments in a timely and available manner. We are failing in this responsibility. And under current policies there is no solution in sight.

We simply do not have enough priests, and especially those trained to do the very specialized hospital ministry. In recent years the Archdiocese has been forced to recruit priests from the developing world to fill in at local hospitals as a stop-gap measure. Many of these priests are here as students. Often they are learning English and have no familiarity with our culture or with hospital ministry. (Indeed, one of these priests who needed to drive some distance to get between the multiple hospitals he was assigned to first needed driving lessons!)

It just happens that there are a number of priests trained to do hospital ministry but are not considered acceptable to serve by our church leadership. These are priests who have left active ministry not due to misbehavior but for making the conscientious decision to marry. One priest, an excellent chaplain, recently left after 25 years of ministry. He left in good standing. He continues to work as a chaplain but cannot be hired as a Catholic chaplain. It seems so wasteful that his talents cannot be utilized.

I talked to the director of ministry personnel for the Archdiocese about this, and he said such decisions were above his pay grade. I reminded him that his Christian baptism gives him every right and, indeed, the responsibility to speak the truth and express his convictions.

I shared the above information with some people to get their feedback and received a response from a Catholic I know who works as an administrator in a local public hospital’s Spiritual Care Office. This person’s work includes a training program for those becoming chaplains. One of the recent interns is a Catholic priest who left active ministry after many years for some difficult personal reasons. He would have preferred staying in ministry and indeed is training to work as a chaplain. He also left priesthood in good standing.

The administrator simply concludes, “ . . . He can no longer perform any of the sacraments at a time when we need help so badly. I cannot tell you how many times I have to tell a family we have no one to call – then ask if they have a priest. Many times they are from out of town, or as you stated, out of touch with the church. My own mother, who was such a devout catholic, ended up in a nursing home away from her parish and at the end of her life, had no ‘priest’ to call. I struggle so with a church that won’t let priests marry, woman be ordained. . . . Let alone just give deacons more power instead of limiting what they can do. I’m talking to the choir, I know.”

There is no shortage of ordained hospital ministers for other denominations. The other non-Catholic members of the Chaplains Department are shocked at how this essential ministry is being handled by the Catholic leadership.

Rev. Michael V. Tegeder is the pastor at St. Edward’s Catholic Church in Bloomington, MN. Progressive Catholic Voice

Well, I'm no expert, but I do know a little bit about hospital chaplaincy. There is no doubt but that there is a shortage of priests in the United States. That shortage can be laid at the feet of the cataclysmic cultural revolution and the consequent modernistic changes in our seminaries during the 60's, 70's and 80's, and to be more blunt, artificial contraception. But stating that does not solve the problem.

I have never been to a seminary and never studied theology at the university level. And I have been a chaplain's assistant for almost two years now at a large Twin Cities hospital. There are a half dozen or so of us who each visit patients once or twice a week, for periods as long as four to six hours. Some patients aren't in their rooms, some don't want to talk, some you can't shut up. Your personality determines your schedule. But since we are all volunteers, shorter periods could no doubt be arranged.

We are consecrated Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and visit patients, talk with them, pray with them, give them Holy Communion should they desire it, and, perform "Spiritual Triage" for the two or three priests who are available to say Mass and perform the Sacraments of Confession and Last Annointing and if need be, more intensive spiritual counselling.

"Triage", if you recall the TV Show M*A*S*H, is the process where trained people examine the patient upon arrival to determine what kind of care is needed. Our volunteers, "trained Catholics", visit patients daily to see what kind of spiritual care they might need, if any.

I picked up that term, "Spiritual Triage" from an Air Force chaplain who is battling cancer and will soon be retiring. He would like to be a hospital chaplain, but he doesn't know if he would be able to visit every Catholic regularly. But his eyes sparkled when he realized that our volunteers inform our priests of patients who need sacramental care. That is not very many each day. He realized that that would be something that he could handle.

Those of you who are considering some kind of rewarding volunteer ministry might contact a nearby hospital or nursing home and see if they might be able to use your very valuable services. If you love people, you'll love this ministry.

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