I was asked to write a reflection on the definition and nature of pastoral care, especially in a hospital environment, as part of my application for my time as an intern hospital chaplain this past summer. It was a fascinating reflection, and I want to share my thoughts, both from before and refined by my time in the hospital.
Treatise on Pastoral Care of the Sick
Pastoral care of the sick and dying is one of the most important parts of any pastoral ministry we can offer. It is undeniable that approaching the spiritual and emotional needs of a person who is sick or dying means interacting with that person and his surrounding friends and family in the most raw emotional and vulnerable times of life, and the enemy would like nothing better than to draw them away from the faith and their relationship with God in the twilight of their lives. With that fact in mind, it is absolutely necessary to understand both the benefit and peace that can come from Christian pastoral care, but also the wounds that can be created or widened by a failure in that care.
For any Christian, the ministry of presence is the first line of pastoral care. In some ways, I think this term gets misused, though. If simple physical presence were all that we were to offer, then it could be fulfilled with a dog. Instead, the minister engaged in pastoral care offers a presence that includes the presence of Christ in the midst, whether spoken or unspoken. The ministry of presence requires the person who is ministering to the sick and dying and their families not only to offer that physical presence, but also a balance of compassion, suffering with the person, and an awareness that any sorrow or mourning that can be shared is still not of the same kind as that which is felt by the person immediately experiencing the grief and loss. Furthermore, it falls to the Christian minister to invite the suffering into a greater communion with Christ’s suffering and so, in the words of Paul, to “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” (Col 1:24, NABRE)
If we allow our ministry to become merely the ministry of presence with the human suffering-with compassion, we fail to invite the healing power of Christ into the situation. As a Catholic, while I cannot offer the full sacramental life of the Church prior to my priestly ordination, there is an added duty to, for those patients who share the Catholic faith, give them the opportunity to share in the sacraments in their current situations. Here, too, there is a risk of falling into the trap of hiding behind the sacraments or, when, God-willing, I am ordained a priest, becoming a mere sacramental dispensary that removes our common humanity from the ministry.
Finally, it seems important to note that, in all circumstances, the needs of the person being ministered to must be served. Pastoral care is never about the minister; rather, it is about offering peace, consolation, and compassion to the sick and suffering.
Am I successful?
With all that said, since I’m publishing this reflection after my term at the hospital is completed and several weeks into serving with the hospice program of the Archdiocese, here, I have to ask myself to what degree I succeeded. My official answer is “meh.” If you ask any of the people to whom I ministered over the summer, they’d probably tell you I did fine. If you ask my supervisor from the summer, she’d probably say the same. If you ask the hospice patients and families or my supervisors there this semester, I suspect they’d say the same. I can be pretty hard on myself, though. Each time I emerged from a patient’s room, each time I leave a house after visiting for hospice, I can list all the things I could have done or said differently or better. Luckily, in all of this, God tends to make up for my human shortcomings – He hides from the faithful a lot of times that I see myself fail. That is, perhaps, the greatest practical gift God gives to us as His ministers. Even though my motives and techniques may not be the best, God fills in where I leave off. Grace builds on nature, and He perfects my efforts to what His people need – as long as I devotedly give my best.