By Susan Catherine Mitchell, MAPS, BCC
Father Myles Sheehan, a Jesuit priest and physician, challenged chaplains to be “competent, professional, shaped by Resurrection, knowing the wounds, but still forgiving and believing in a future that is radically different.”
He made the remarks during an April 15 plenary talk at the 2013 NACC National Conference in Pittsburgh, PA, in which he said that he was providing an “outsider’s take on identity.”
He spoke on the conference theme of identity and stated clearly that his own identity and personal and professional callings shaped his remarks.
“It is not up to me to tell you what your identity is,” said the provincial of the New England province of Jesuits and former dean of the Loyola University of Chicago’s medical school. Father Sheehan called on chaplains to minister in a broken church, a church that we know by its wounds as the body of Christ, and to accept “your own brokenness, without anger, guilt, competition or a desire to wound others.”
He made, as many of the conference speakers did, an allusion to the conference theme, “Three Rivers Converging: A Call to Faith, Identity and Action.” (I do not think I have ever been to another NACC conference where the theme and location have been so prevalent in all the speakers’ remarks. The only exception might be the “Streams in the Desert” theme in 2005 in Albuquerque, with water also being the preeminent symbol of new life.)
Father Sheehan spoke of his experience fly fishing and learning how to read a stream in order to find its equilibrium point. He challenged us to think hard about convergence, and about tensions between parts of our identity; where we find tension, we will find resilience.
He was clear that he spoke out of his hospital experience as a physician and teacher, and that he knew very little about other areas in which chaplains minister. At numerous points in his talk, he emphasized that he could only talk about what he knew, that he was offering us his expertise so that we could develop our own identity. Father Sheehan gave us a perspective different from one which we often hear, including a solid theological grounding of chaplaincy in the post-Resurrection narratives.
He also offered some models of what makes up a profession, including distinctive expertise, arduous training, being the source of great benefit, complex material, great autonomy and great obligations, and how all of these applied to chaplaincy.
As a medical school dean, he required all first-year medical students to do two four-hour shifts with the chaplain. He shared how it opened their eyes to what chaplains do. He spent some time on models of training medical students that might be of use to CPE students, such as interviewing techniques and scripting. While some of these, I believe, are being used in CPE programs, I wondered at his use of the word, “interviewing.” A chaplain listening to a patient is there in a very different capacity than a medical student gathering basic information. However, I did get the point that if we are not trained to listen carefully, chaplains are just as able to miss important things. He challenged us to work with student doctors and nurses, to “help train a new generation.”
He then spent some time talking about managed care and called upon us to judge medicine not by its characteristics, but “by its moral premises.” He asked us, “What are the values you profess?” and told us that “speaking the truth with love is what you have to do as chaplains,” an echo in my mind of the definition of a prophet as one who speaks truth to power.
While encouraging self-care, he then got into a section of his talk which I, and those seated at my table, found puzzling. He spoke of self-care as not being narcissism so that at 5 p.m. on a Friday, it “can’t just be the priest who stays.” He said that we must “live up to the call to serve, whether ordained or not.”
He deftly wove in the Sunday Gospel of John 21 of the Risen Christ at the Sea of Galilee. He quoted Jesuit author Gerald O’Collins in “Believing in the Resurrection: The Meaning and Promise of the Risen Jesus” (Paulist Press, 2012), and asked, “What difference to theology does the Resurrection story make?” He encouraged us to be “embodied by the Resurrection,” and to work out our struggles in its light. In the inimitable Jesuit way, he placed us on that beach, in that garden, with Jesus inviting us to life again, to a future where we can repair broken relationships.
He said that we are all called to be wounded healers, not “wounded wounders,” and that our professional identity is found in “Christ risen from the dead … knowing the pain, living in a new present, called to a new future.”
Susan Catherine Mitchell is a chaplain with Holy Cross Hospice and Home Care in Silver Spring, MD, which is part of the Trinity Health System.