By Elaine Chan, BCC
Right after New Year’s, I was called to the bedside of an elderly patient who had been unconscious the entire time he was hospitalized. I had prayed at his side and arranged for the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, but I had not met the family or friends. I was informed that the family was coming to visit in the afternoon. When I got to the room that day, I met his lifelong partner, as well as his niece and nephew. I prayed with them, and shortly thereafter the patient passed.
A month or so earlier, I had been in the same unit for another patient whose same-sex partner of more than 40 years requested the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick for him. Shortly after receiving the sacrament, he passed. In both cases I felt the loving bond between the partners as I watched them by the bedside. Also, I witnessed the profound loss and grief of the living partner. I felt privileged to minister to both of these patients. Their loved ones were most appreciative of my help in arranging for the Sacrament of the Sick and my prayers with them.
Across from one of these patients was another elderly patient who had been in and out of the hospital, with her partner of many years. When the partner saw me, she asked me to say a prayer.
Reflecting on these three pastoral visits, I have to ask: What are the pastoral needs of this population? How can chaplains respond to the patients, their partners, families and others, some of whom may not accept their sexual orientation?
The pastoral needs of the patient who is homosexual are similar to those of a heterosexual patient. They struggle with coping with illness and hospitalization. They seek support, including spiritual and religious support. They may especially need support if family and/or friends have not accepted their sexual orientation. Chaplains can respond by providing one-on-one pastoral care, as well as by facilitating spirituality and bereavement groups specifically for patients and/or their same sex partners.
Often I do not know if a patient is gay or lesbian unless he or she tells me. In these three cases, the partner told me. I feel it takes a great deal of trust for someone to come out to me. It is very personal, and they may be concerned about how I, a religious person, will respond. Some patients may feel estranged from the church because of their sexual orientation and may not initially want my services. If an opportunity arises to visit them again, I follow up to see how they are doing. Others may use pastoral care services but not tell me their sexual orientation. I do not need to know, but if someone confides in me, I want to be mindful of how I respond. In these and all pastoral encounters, I say a prayer and ask God to guide me in my words and actions.
All human beings have a deep desire to be accepted and loved for who they are. I am aware of cases in which people have been rejected and marginalized by families, friends, religious and institutions. Years ago I heard about a dying patient whose family had not accepted his sexual orientation. This patient’s partner was unable to visit him or have any say in his care. This was heartbreaking for both the patient and the partner. If I were the chaplain for this patient, I would have tried to persuade the family to let the partner visit and participate.
A fellow chaplain told me a story about how the family of a dying patient was concerned that his partner was visiting him. When the chaplain got to the room, the patient’s partner was reading the Bible to him. The chaplain asked him if he was at peace. He said “yes.” She said she felt there was nothing more for her to say or do, since he was at peace.
Pope Francis is often quoted as saying: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” My role is not to discuss church teachings or judge the patient’s sexual orientation. I am mindful of not only the individual, partner and family but also how I speak and act when disparaging remarks are made about homosexuality. As a Roman Catholic as well as a chaplain, I am a role model to others. I need to courageously speak up for the human dignity of all. I am to welcome and include those who may not always feel welcomed in the Catholic community. In my research, I found church documents on the subject including a November 14, 2006, statement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on Ministry to Persons with Homosexual Inclinations. The document is a way of beginning a conversation. We need also to include people who are homosexual in the conversation.
As we enter the holy season of Lent, may we learn to fast from judging and feast on acceptance. May we give ourselves fully to all in need, especially those who may feel marginalized and rejected. May we know God’s love for us and all beings. May the Holy Spirit guide us in all things. God bless you and your ministry!
This article is dedicated to Fr. James Nieckarz, M.M., who died Nov. 4, 2013. In the late 1980s, Father visited people with AIDS in New York hospitals and at their homes. Some of these patients had been abandoned by their partners, families and friends. Father was their only visitor. He conducted many funerals and memorials for them and also facilitated a bereavement group for survivors. He also was involved with two different prayer groups, as well as serving on an institutional review board that created protocols monitoring experimental drugs for people with AIDS.
Elaine Chan, BCC, is a staff chaplain at New York Hospital in Queens, N. Y. and Healthcare Chaplaincy Network.