By Dc. Dare Dutter | Contributing writer
Our Catholic faith relies on the words of Jesus Christ to guide us in what we need to do to follow him to heaven. Nowhere in Scripture is this guidance more evident and powerful than in Matthew 25:35-36 where Jesus tells us that we must feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned. Now, as a church, we do a pretty good job in many of those mandates. We have food drives at our churches that bring a good amount of food to those who are hungry. We have well-established RCIA programs to welcome those who are new to our faith, clothing drives to help people have something to wear; and our Jail Ministry program is very well established, with pen pals and visitors to the jails on a regular basis. But what of the mandate to visit those who are ill? What has our diocese done to help them through what is certainly a scary and difficult time of pain and uncertainty? Whom do we send to visit those who are in hospitals to ease the loneliness of being sick or injured to the point where hospitalization is necessary?
The answer is chaplains. Our diocese has a number of dedicated and well-trained chaplains who are committed to visiting those who are sick in our hospitals. Perhaps someone in your family has been hospitalized and has been visited by one of our diocesan chaplains. It is scary enough to be lying in a bed in a place that is not your home with doctors, nurses and other medical personnel walking in and out, asking you questions and putting you through a battery of medical tests. In this time of COVID, the ability to visit family members is very limited. That is where the chaplains come in. They are assigned to many of the hospitals in our diocese, including those in Binghamton and Utica.
One such patient, Josephine (not her real name due to HIPPA rules), shared that she was in a very difficult situation where doctors worked for several days to decide what was causing her the great pain she was experiencing. She tells of a day when a chaplain came in to sit with her and offer hope, prayers and Holy Communion. She says, “The visit from the chaplain really brightened my day. I was feeling very nervous about what was going on with my treatment, and the visit turned what was a negative situation into something much more positive.” This change of attitude was facilitated by the presence of Jesus in the person of the chaplain.
The diocesan hospital chaplains are recruited and trained to be a positive presence in the rooms of patients. Their job is to listen to what the patient has to say, rather than to bring in any predetermined spiritual menu. The most effective program for training chaplains is what is known as Clinical Pastoral Education, a nationally accredited training program supervised locally by Rev. Terry Culbertson at Upstate Medical University Hospital. When asked about her program’s effectiveness, Rev. Culbertson says: “Clinical Pastoral Education is a method of experiential theological education, where we learn about ourselves and the God we serve through encounters with suffering persons in order to become more effective pastoral caregivers. This training is open to laity, religious and ordained who truly desire to learn and grow in serving the sick, their families and the staff who care for them.
A typical day for one of the diocese’s hospital chaplains is filled with spiritual-care visits. A chaplain is assigned to a certain floor where most of their visits take place. Many hospital floors are dedicated to a certain type of medical condition, such as Neurology, Orthopedics or Cancer. Thus, a chaplain will face patients with brain injuries on one floor, a broken leg on another floor and a case of pancreatic cancer on a third floor. A part of a chaplain’s training is focused on the nature of these different types of medical situations and how best to address people suffering from different illnesses or injuries. For example, it is important to consider the life-altering qualities of a cancer diagnosis differently from the impact of a broken leg. Chaplains are also trained to address the needs of patients of different faiths, as they might be visiting a Catholic one moment, a Protestant another time and a Jehovah’s Witness in yet another visit.
As we all know, the pandemic brought out some different situations in our hospitals during the period from March 2020 to January 2021. During this time, families were not able to be present in the hospital at all for a time, and only for very short periods near the end of the year. This was the time where the presence of diocesan chaplains proved to be very important. Because hospitals could not allow anyone into the hospital who was not part of the staff, the comforting presence of family and loved ones was not a possibility. It was the hospital chaplains who took up the cause of comforting patients who were going through medical difficulties such as cancer, strokes and even COVID. Additionally, the leadership of the spiritual-care department at Upstate Downtown decided to start a remote ministry, where chaplains would call the family members of patients to tell them that their loved ones were not alone because they were being accompanied by chaplains.
The diocesan chaplains who work in our hospitals are often ordained deacons. There are deacons working at Upstate Downtown and Community hospitals in Syracuse, at Wilson and Binghamton General Hospitals in Binghamton and at Faxton/St. Luke’s hospital in Utica. With the reduced number of priests in our time, the deacons can bridge the spiritual gap that can leave parishioners feeling lonely. Deacons can perform as Ordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, preside at weddings and funerals, and provide counseling for patients who are seeking to find Jesus in the midst of their suffering.
The Diocese of Syracuse funds the hospital chaplains mainly through the Hope Appeal which seeks donations from parish members across the diocese. The cost of recruiting, training and supporting the chaplains is a strong investment in our diocesan commitment to serving our parishioners in times of suffering. It is important that Jesus’ message in Matthew 25:35-36 be followed through as completely as possible. It is the chaplains who make this commitment possible, looking at their work as a joyful exercise in servanthood.
Dc. Dare Dutter is a chaplain at Upstate University Medical Center and coordinates chaplain training and assignments for the Diocese of Syracuse. He also serves at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt.