As a hospital chaplain for the past 31 years in the Diocese of Camden, I have a deep sense of gratitude to God and to the Diocese for this great privilege of ministering to our patients. My focus is primarily on our Spanish-speaking patients but I also see may other patients as well. What I have learned is that each patient is unique, and each encounter with a patient is a profound revelation of God. I am often touched by the openness of our patients in sharing their life’s journey. Being in the hospital, away from the business of everyday life, gives people the time and space to look within to reset their priorities, to discover God anew, within themselves, within their families, and especially in the challenges that abound in their daily lives.
When someone is overwhelmed with a serious illness or a new diagnosis, they often don’t want to burden their loved ones with their feelings of fear and worry. If they can talk it over with someone else, especially with a chaplain, they will often feel more comfortable in sharing their concerns with the family. As a chaplain, I have the time to listen both to what is being said, and on a deeper level, to what is left unsaid. In these sharings, I am constantly amazed at the faith and trust in God’s providence, and the awesome realization that our lives are in God’s hands. Again and again, I hear stories of how God has been acting in each one’s life. And it is always with the sure knowledge that God is not about to abandon them now – or ever! Our Spanish-speaking patients always say, “Primero Dios,” meaning that God is first and that whatever happens, God is in charge!
Many times I am asked to see a patient who has just received “bad news” or one who is sad or lonely, or perhaps is homeless, with no support system. Listening to these patients’ struggles trying to help them to see where God may be present in their lives, can remind them (and me) of God’s tender, personal love for each of us. Just being present in a non-judgmental way, letting the patient know that someone cares – holding a hand, drying a tear – being a compassionate presence – can make a great difference.
Our hospital, ATLANTICARE, is very blessed to have a full-time, on-call priest chaplain, Fr. Bob Matysik, as well as a part-time chaplain, Deacon Frank Cerullo. We also have a very dedicated team of Eucharistic Ministers.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say that my personal journey has been deeply transformed through years of interaction with the sick. as a Sister of St. Joseph, we pray every day “to stand open and powerless before God, completely dependent on Jesus, to be a healing presence in any and all circumstances.” I know for certain, that this ministry of Pastoral Care allows me to be the hands and face and voice through which Jesus touches, smiles, and speaks to His beloved sick. What a humbling experience – and how grateful I am.
Deacon Thomas Fargnoli
“What I’ve found in the hospitals are many people who have faith and believe in God but are not churchgoers. For whatever reason over the years they had broken away from the church. I view this as a very good opportunity to reintroduce them to a loving God, a compassionate God. I try to help them feel like they’re a part of something, whether they come to church or not; that they’re still connected and that God cares for them; that people care for them. Chaplaincy has given me a chance to practice what I preach. This was a chance to live Matthew 25: ‘You fed me when I was hungry, you visited me when I was sick. When you visited the least of my brethren you visited me.’ To me this is really doing what Jesus himself wanted us to do.
“A lot of times I find myself talking not so much about their illness, but you find they have many things going on in their lives that brought them to the hospital. Just listening, most times, is what I do. At the end of the visit the prayer I put together, instead of a packaged prayer, I try to make it relevant to what they told me so that they know God is very aware of what they’re going through. For me, my spiritual connection, my relationship with the Lord has been solidified and has increased with this ministry. When someone looks at me and says, ‘Thank you for visiting me,’ ‘Thank you for talking to my mother’ – and I’m just listening, not doing anything miraculous – I just feel that I’m meant to be here. As much as I want to help them spiritually, many times I’ve found they’re helping me.
“When I was thinking about becoming a deacon, one priest I talked to for guidance said, ‘We’re around people during their very critical times, good and bad; around them when they’re getting married and special things are happening; also around them when bad things happen.’ I find that being around people at those times, it’s just a really human thing. The rewarding thing is feeling like you made a difference, as small as it may be.
“Father Wilson, my mentor here at the hospital, told me, ‘These people obviously need a doctor and nurses, but I want you to know that spiritual health is just as important in getting them back to health.’ We have a physical part and a mental part – your thoughts and how you think, they’re connected to the physical. Likewise, the spiritual, the third part, is very important as well. You can’t see it but when you love someone and they love you it influences your other two parts. When you’re cared for, when you’re loved, it helps your physical part and your mental part. They’re all connected; they’re all dependent on each other. Love is the best way to describe it, because it’s as close to the spiritual realm as we can get.”
Deacon Anthony Cioe
“Chaplains work in hospitals and nursing homes and what we encounter in each is very different. In the hospital we deal with folks where it’s either a sudden illness or an operation; or there are end of life issues; children being born and it’s joyful, or children being born and it’s not joyful.
“In my first week at one of the hospitals a woman gave birth to twins and one twin appeared to be healthy while the other twin was ill and was probably not going to make it. I was called because they wanted us to baptize the baby. The mother was holding the baby and it was probably her last moments she’d be able to hold that child. As I baptized the baby, as I was pouring the water over the baby’s head, the mother’s tears were mixing with the baptizing water. It was one of the most moving things I have ever experienced. That was a family that understood the importance of the sacraments, of baptism, of Christ being a part of this new baby’s short life. I tear up whenever I think about it.
“At the nursing homes we encounter people who have been very strong in their faith; we encounter other people who have fallen away from faith during their lives. As I was making the rounds, visiting people who are Catholic, I recently encountered an elderly gentleman who has just a wonderful personality. But he was distraught that his independent life was pretty much over and worried about the future. He wasn’t particularly open to talking about his faith life, but as the weeks progressed, I asked him, as I always did if he would like to receive communion. One day he said he would, but would need to go to confession first. Our priest chaplain, Father Hartman, had a chance to meet with him, speak with him, and slowly over weeks he went to confession. He’s receiving the Eucharist and we’re now bringing him to Mass when we have it at the facility. This is now the joy of his life: that he is experiencing his faith again in a complete way.
“You never know what’s going to happen. While there are some routine things that happen every day, other days we will have nurses or doctors come up to us and say, ‘Will you pray with me? I’m having a rough day.’ We chaplains need to be open to where the Spirit is leading us that particular day so we can minister the way that God has called us to minister.
“I think that when people are in the hospital or in a nursing facility they begin to understand their mortality and they recognize that they need to rebuild their faith or that they need to live it out better at that important point in their lives. Some people can continue to be deaf, but other people when they come to that crossroads, all those seeds that were planted at some point in their lives begin to take root. The crisis in the person’s life or the major life changing event gives the person the need to think through, ‘What is my relationship with God? How do I begin to strengthen it?’
“Every day I see God’s love. I will walk past a room and I will hear a husband read the newspaper to his wife. I will walk past another room and I will see an adult child feeding their parent at lunch or dinner time. People say to me, ‘How can you enjoy doing this so much?’ I tell them because I see God’s love at every turn that I make, in every encounter that I have. I can see God and feel God’s presence. With some people it’s totally obvious; with other people they just need to have the opportunity to talk or feel that somebody cares about them. For me every second of every day is just a reinforcement of God’s love for us. When people are the most vulnerable or broken, when people are the most scared, when people are the most anxious, you see what’s really deep in them.”