James Bell, a veteran of the Korean War who served as a staff sergeant E-6, became a Catholic six years ago. He was living near the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Syracuse and felt the time was right to join the RCIA program, something he’d wanted to do for 30 years. Today, he says his remarkable recovery from a grim diagnosis is a testament to his faith.
“God is bringing me out of this,” he said.
Bell is just one of the more than 42,000 service people from the VA Medical Center’s 13-county coverage area (St. Lawrence to northern Pennsylvania and Auburn to Herkimer, with out-patient clinics in Auburn, Binghamton, Freeville, Massena, Oswego, Rome and Watertown) who will receive medical care through the VA this year. The hospital serves veterans of all religions and is therefore stringent about ensuring that patients don’t have any kind of unwelcome religious presence forced on them. But there are also policies in place that ensure the spiritual needs of patients are met, including having chaplains on site.
Father David James has been the full-time Catholic chaplain at the VA for the last six years and has served at the hospital in various capacities since 1992. Having served as pastor at churches in the past, Father James said he does sometimes miss that role, but truly does feel that the patients at the VA make up his parish.
“When the hospital becomes their home, I am their priest,” he said. “In the last six years, I have celebrated baptisms, first Communions, birthdays. There is a strong bond and connection, through the good, sad and happy times.”
Father James spends the majority of his time with patients who are long-term and permanent residents, as well as those in hospice care. His main ministry, he said, is helping them know and come to believe that God is with them. One of the first things he does is ask a patient to share his story.
“From there, we see what conclusions we can come to, any commonalities, what struggles he might be facing, what feelings he might be harboring,” he said. A spiritual assessment also takes place, so that appropriate pastoral care becomes part of the patient’s overall care plan.
“The important thing is to treat each person as an individual. Each story is different and unique…. You have to accept people where they are and not judge. There’s no room for that,” Father James said.
The end of life can dredge up deeply buried emotions and memories, and many of Father James’s patients over the years have struggled to reconcile things they had to do in the name of serving their country with Catholic teachings.
“Many are looking for a sense of peace. They’ve experienced a trauma [during their service] and they’ve never gotten over it and have held that part within themselves. But when they’re dying, it all comes out,” he said. “I am there to assure them of God’s love and forgiveness, and to help them see that they also have to forgive themselves.”
Others have become alienated from God because of their experiences. Father James cites the example of soldiers who were drafted into military service in Vietnam, only to come home to people who called them “baby killers.”
“A person in that position might say, ‘Where was God then?’ or ‘Where is God in war?’” he said. “I try to show them that God doesn’t make wars happen or single people out for punishment. God has a special place for veterans. I try to be a welcoming presence and break down those barriers little by little.”
When he is able to bring down those walls, it is “the most amazing thing,” Father James said. “People confide in me, there is a connection. They need and want a spiritual presence and it is a very sacred moment. It is humbling and moving to be invited into that space.”
Deacon Peter Vanelli shares that sentiment. He assisted the chaplains at the VA from 1975 to 1985, and he is also currently a patient at the hospital, recuperating from a procedure. Though he’s not on official assignment to the VA, Deacon Vanelli is “happy and proud” to offer what spiritual support he can to fellow Catholic veterans.
“We’re all troubled and hurting in one way or another, and we all need healing,” Deacon Vanelli said. “Sometimes, that means holding a hand, saying a prayer or just being there to listen. This is a presence ministry, one of understanding and listening.”
Father James also credits the staff at the hospital — the doctors, nurses, the palliative care team, the hospice team — with helping him to best serve the veterans. He says he considers them “family.”
“It is a privilege to be part of that team,” he said. “We support each other and make sure the patients are getting the very best care possible. And really, that’s all the staff. I see people stopping in the hallways to meet the needs of the veterans, to make sure they are treated with dignity and respect. It might not be within their job description to get a patient a cup of coffee, but they’ll do it anyway. It’s beautiful.”
But it is the patients themselves who impress Father James most.
“I ask them, ‘Would you do it [serve in the military] all over again?’ and they all say yes…. I have the utmost love, respect and admiration for their service,” he said.
“I’m not a veteran and I never, ever thought I’d be the chaplain here,” he continued. “But to feel I’ve made a difference in veterans’ lives… I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
The VA is always looking for volunteers, and Father James is looking for Eucharistic ministers in particular. If you would like to help, visit www.syracuse.va.gov.