By Joe Walters
When the airline cancelled my flight from Oklahoma City to the NACC conference in St. Louis, I had to think fast. I had looked forward to commissioning as a newly certified chaplain as a visible sign that our church endorses me as her minister — but the new flight would not arrive in time for me to rehearse for the commissioning ceremony. Google said the drive is eight hours. I got in my car and hit the road, with plenty of time to consider my journey so far.
I had abandoned my faith as a college freshman and became “spiritual but not religious” in my mid-twenties. But thirty years later, after a young couple asked me to be their daughter’s godparent, I learned that godparents must be practicing Catholics. After Reconciliation, I attended Mass regularly. Although I had attended a Jesuit high school and two years at a Jesuit college, my religious knowledge was deficient. I felt conflict between things I heard and personal belief.
Meanwhile, I was studying Ignatian spirituality and subscribed to America magazine. Fordham University advertised an online certificate in faith formation, which seemed ideal to update my religious training from our home in Norman, OK. After two classes, a professor suggested I enroll in an online master’s program in pastoral care. I could get three credits for one unit of CPE, which I had never heard of.
I never considered chaplaincy. I had practiced law for 22 years, and that seemed professional enough. But a week after interviewing with the University of Oklahoma Medical Center’s CPE director, I became a chaplain intern. I enjoyed my first unit so well that I took four, while finishing my MA. I learned to relate to people instead of deal with them. I decided to seek certification.
While completing the application and supporting materials, I recognized certification as extraordinary recognition of education, faith and growth by which our church endorses us to provide spiritual and emotional care. The precise requirements were challenging. The interview was daunting, but my highly professional interviewers were also caring and encouraging. I was delighted when they told me that they would recommend certification.
I arrived at the Union Station Hotel in St. Louis ten minutes before the rehearsal began. I met another newly certified chaplain who had also interviewed in Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti. Genuine smiles and congratulations confirmed that driving was worth it. At the conference, I embraced the profession I had been courting for six years. Caring professionalism, spiced with friendly humor, confirmed that my additional career will be rewarding, and if performed grace-fully, enrich the lives of those God gives me to serve.
The conference really began for me at Sunday’s 8:30 Mass. Beautiful liturgical music tranquilly dispelled fretful worries about a complicated life. I was grateful for the large, holy, yet engaged crowd that enthusiastically welcomed newly certified chaplains. The congregation raising their hands above us was numinous. When the celebrant, Father Bucchino, shook my hand and gave me my certificate, I felt part of a group working with God to bring about the Kingdom. I felt the Spirit leading me to something profound, and my church’s blessing.
The rest of the conference enhanced my admiration for the profession of chaplaincy and my gratitude for its members. I attended a workshop describing a case of ministry to parents and their severely disabled newborn by chaplains at a Catholic hospital in Binghamton, NY, where I received my undergraduate degree. I was moved by the sacred support these chaplains gave this family. Their reverence for the infant, born without the senses we take for granted, and her brief, but deeply loved life, confirmed my commitment to a culture of life. I kept the concept of a birth plan for future use.
I also learned that a group of NACC members is interested in research, and I decided to explore further. Finally, I participated in a workshop on Ignatian spirituality. I learned of Ignatius and his companions’ early involvement in hospital ministry. This confirmed my feeling of encountering God in hospital ministry, and seeing God in all things, including the tragedies our patients and families experience.
I heard three plenary speakers. I thought during Dr. Daniel Sulmasy’s talk that gospel stories of healing are historical, but also contemporary narratives of Jesus’ healing presence that we continue. Pastoral care enhances modern technological healing by restoring personal relationship. Dr. Tracy Balboni’s presentation magnified my new interest in research in pastoral care and affirmed the importance of spiritual care in partnership with medicine. Helping people to die well is a striking part of our ministry. I downloaded her work when I got home to read more.
I saved three statements by Chris Lowney: Fear is not a good counselor; we must get comfortable with being uncomfortable; and Nelson Mandela’s admission that he had been afraid to be who he was. These statements remind me how I sometimes feel when walking to meet a family and patient in distress. I must remember that the Spirit renews all things, is always young, and sustains me in my sometimes awkward discomfort. The NACC conference was a gift from the Spirit.