The Special Ministry of Hospital Chaplaincy

Hospital ministry is a rich classroom of learning

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Father David BonnarSpecial ministry often refers to ministry outside the realm of parish life. In my priesthood of 32 years, I have served as a high school chaplain, seminary rector, director of vocations, director of the permanent diaconate and vicar of clergy, all of which are considered special ministry. The irony is that all that I ever wanted to be is a parish priest. To this day there is nothing I enjoy more than that.

Serving as a chaplain at a hospital or health care institution also comes under the title of special ministry. Last fall, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it happened that the chaplain of our local hospital took sick. For the next three months, in addition to our parish responsibilities, my assistants and I became the hospital chaplain. With the absence of the chaplain, it was incumbent on us as the closest parish to the 329-bed hospital to assume 24/7 pastoral coverage.

I have had some time to prayerfully process this experience. I want to share with you, my brothers, some observations. First, I have a newfound respect for hospital chaplains whose lives are governed by interruptions. Every day and night, they are reminded in a real way that the needs of others are greater than their own. What is more, they are on the front lines of those perennial heart-wrenching questions like: “Why me?” “Why do bad things happen to good people?” To anyone who currently serves as a chaplain in the health care ministry, I thank you for your ministry and for dropping everything at any time to be with the sick and dying.

Second, while encountering someone ill can engender all kinds of feelings of disruption, uneasiness, discomfort and inadequacy for many of us priests, these moments can become grace-filled opportunities. Grace overflows in our priestly power, but it also comes back to us by virtue of the encounter. For no matter how frustrating it might seem to get called to the hospital, I always come away from the experience humbled and filled with gratitude. What is more, I have always found the hospital to be a rich classroom of learning.

Third, as unsettling as entering a hospital situation can sometimes be, I have never felt more like a priest in these moments. We enter that room in the person of Jesus Christ with a special power by virtue of our ordination to confer the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. No one else besides us has that power. We also can absolve the person of their sins by hearing their confession. No one else has that power either. But it is not us as much as it is Christ working through us. Christ uses us as his instruments of comfort and healing. What we do can bring great solace not only to the sick but also to their loved ones. I will never forget covering the local hospital in my first priestly assignment. Thirty years ago, many of the faithful would be so grateful for the anointing that they would actually take my hands and reverently kiss them. I also vividly remember family members expressing a sigh of relief along with some very grateful words knowing that their loved one had been anointed.

But times do change, which leads me to my final observation. With all due respect to the many faithful families we serve in these moments, I must say that I was confounded by the increasing number of patients who, for whatever reason, refused the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick from my brother priests and me. Why would anyone refuse the opportunity to receive comfort, grace and peace from Jesus? Perhaps the refusal is a matter of denial or fear of death. Perhaps it is but another rippling effect from the clergy sexual abuse scandal. Many people may find it hard to trust priests. Whatever it is, it is really a sad commentary. In the end, I think it just shows how secular our world has become. And yet, it also reveals how more convicted in the Faith we all must be.

Brothers, whatever ministry we may be embracing, I think we can say that it is a special ministry that demands our special attention to keep Jesus at the front and center of our lives.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 16 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, email us at Follow and like The Priest magazine on Facebook.

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