By Rodger F. Accardi, DMin, BCC
Sister Carol Keehan, president and chief executive of the Catholic Health Association, addressed the chaplains at the 2013 NACC National Conference not as someone standing on the shore of converging rivers, but as a person navigating the whitewater in the midst of that convergence.
Sister Carol, a member of the Daughters of Charity, acknowledged the work of chaplains as flowing directly from the documents of Vatican II, called upon chaplains to take care of themselves for the sake of those they serve, and challenged them to do all they could to help enroll uninsured people into the insurance programs available to them.
Theme of the April 13-16 conference in Pittsburgh, PA, was “Three Rivers Converging: A Call to Faith, Identity and Action.” Sister Carol made her comments in a plenary talk Tuesday, April 16.
She spent much of her talk connecting the documents of Vatican II with the ministry of the chaplain. In addressing the chaplain’s ministry of presence with those physically and spiritually distressed, she noted that the “council in its ‘Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World’ aspired to be with people in the most critical moments of their lives, both from the perspective of joy and sorrow. Think of the hundreds of times (of) joys, griefs and anxieties that occur in our health facilities, and how almost invariably you find the chaplain there representing the church who wishes to share and support these joys, griefs and anxieties of humanity. You made that care of the church, and her Lord, real in the lives of so many.”
She spoke of her own experience of working with chaplains when she said,
“I have had direct working contact with chaplains. I know firsthand what you mean to patients and their families, as well as what you mean to our staff.
“Whether you are the one who stays with a family member when the rest of us are frantically trying to resuscitate the patient, or to restrain the patient, or to do an emergency delivery – in all of these and so much more, you model the loving concern of God for those suffering,” she said. “You model it to them and to the whole healthcare community. This is a great privilege and a great challenge.”
And going further, beyond the one-to-one ministry of the chaplain, she acknowledged the professional organizational work done by the chaplains as members of the NACC, and connected that also with the documents of Vatican II:
“You have spent so much time and effort developing and implementing professional standards for chaplains, and doing this in cooperation with the church. You have the task of developing and certifying someone in the practice of spiritual care,” Sister Carol said.
“You are working to determine that a person not only has the requisite education, but that they are personally grounded in their faith, knowledgeable of their faith traditions and its social and moral teachings, while at the same time a sensitive communicator, a team player, able to work with persons at all levels, and persons of any faith, or no faith, and that is a daunting challenge,” she commented. “You must see yourselves as championing some of the best exhortations of the Second Vatican Council.”
Sister Carol called for the chaplains to take action by taking good care of themselves:
“You are Catholic chaplains who render spiritual care out of a given faith tradition to persons of the Catholic faith, or other faiths, or no faith, and it requires great personal stamina as well as being deeply grounded in who you are and in your relationship to yourself, to your God, to your family, and to the other important people in your lives. We desperately need you,” she said. “And that is why I encourage you to take care of yourself. So many people in our facilities draw so much strength from you that it is important that you continually attend to nourishing yourself for them.”
Sr. Carol is probably best known for her efforts in the development of the Affordable Care Act. She pointed out the profound parallels in both political and religious spheres with the passage and implementation of Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s and healthcare reform today.
She went on to say: “Let me be completely clear that there are real problems and challenges in the Affordable Care Act. It is anything but a perfect piece of legislation. There are things that have already been fixed in it, and things that we will have to have fixed in the future, but it is the first step in getting healthcare access for everyone in this country. We are long overdue to do that, and it is a noble first step.”
Sister Carol further explained that starting in October the insurance exchanges and the expanded Medicaid program will open. This is designed to bring 30-32 million of the 50 million uninsured Americans into the healthcare insured arena. They are the working poor, and getting those people to come in and get enrolled is going to be a huge challenge.
She said, “We must take advantage of every opportunity to talk with them, to help these families become insured families, who can go the doctor, have a medical home, get the prescriptions filled, get preventive services, without any co-pay. For them to have this benefit so readily available and not know it, and not take advantage of it, would be absolutely catastrophic.”
She told the chaplains, “I encourage you, because people have great trust in you, both those within your healthcare facilities and in your community, especially between now and October, to be a strong catalyst and advocate for getting Medicaid expanded and enrollment in the exchanges moving very successfully.”
Sr. Carol concluded her presentation, referring once again to the theme and image for this conference, “We started out looking at the metaphor ‘converging rivers,’ and the actions of rivers to wash, feed, water and heal.
“I hope you have a sense from me of how much your very challenging work each day means to us in healthcare as well as to the patients, and how much we admire your willingness to care for us and our patients, even more intensely than converging rivers do.”
Rod Accardi is director of spiritual care resources at Cadence Health in Winfield, IL.