By Charles Stump
A generation ago, parish priests could provide much of the pastoral care needed for Catholics who were sick or dying. But changes in the church, and the healthcare system, have forced all of us to look for new ways of carrying out ministry. In the Diocese of Dallas, we have developed three models to meet our new and changing needs.
More than a decade ago, then-Bishop Charles V. Grahmann recognized, “Today health care places greater focus on the healing of the whole person. This has resulted in greater appreciation of a team approach to health care, and that team approach often includes the pastoral care of the patient.”
The medical staff is focusing on cure, while the pastoral role of the chaplain is healing. Cure implies that we want to restore this person to who he or she were physically before the illness or injury, while healing implies that we want to continue the mission of Jesus by restoring the relationship between this person and God the Father. With many of our parishes consisting of 3,000 to 4,000 families and being served by one priest, that priest cannot also provide pastoral care to an 800-bed hospital within his territorial boundary. We needed a new diocesan plan to provide for the pastoral care of Catholics within the community hospital system. It was also important to honor the boundaries of pastoral care ministry and how it often overlaps into sacramental ministry and social ministry.
In the first model, the Diocese of Dallas employs three priests, two deacons and one religious sister to serve in five major hospitals (more than 300 beds) within Dallas County. As example, Parkland Hospital serves immigrants from many nations and the poor throughout Dallas County and records more than 18,000 births per year. The full-time Catholic priest assigned there provides for the sacramental and spiritual needs of the patients and their families, including daily Mass. The religious sister works closely with the pastoral care staff to provide pastoral care for Catholic patients and families, especially mothers going through difficult births.
In the second model, the territorial parish provides lay ministers who serve Catholics in the local community hospital and talk to the pastor about sacramental needs. An example of this model is a suburban parish with over 30 volunteers who have been trained and security-cleared by the hospital. The volunteers get a census listing of the Catholic patients from the pastoral care department and visit six days a week, providing spiritual support and Eucharist to the patients and families. Some parishes have also adopted the concept of lay ecclesial ministers of care, who coordinate parish volunteers not only in the local hospital but also assisted living, nursing homes and the homebound. In some parishes this work also extends to prison ministry.
In a third model, we have several Catholic lay chaplains who are employed by the community hospitals; this includes three Catholic CPE supervisors employed in three different hospitals. These chaplains are sought out by the local hospitals to serve their Catholic patient population, and many hospice organizations look for trained lay chaplains to support their mission of caring for the dying and their families.
As chaplains we are trying to keep our arms around the care for Catholic patients in the major hospitals today, but what about the future? Parkland Hospital will be moving into its new facility this fall and will have 862 single-patient rooms. UT Southwestern Hospital will also be moving this fall into a new facility with 460 beds. The average length of stay has shrunk, but that only increases the challenge to make at least one visit to the patient and family that says, “Yes, the Body of Christ cares that you are sick and suffering, and we join with you in that journey toward healing.”
The Dallas Diocese contains six ACPE centers, and many volunteers have moved from the pew to completing at least an extended unit or even a resident program. Some chaplains have gone through the accreditation process with NACC or ACPE and are employed either part-time or full-time. Our hospital system is also growing outside Dallas County, into the suburban communities with parishes that exceed 4,000 families with two priests.
The question is, how are these parishes going to serve not only their own parishioners but also their visitors in the community hospitals? Also, is your hospital prepared to join with the local community for support in this team effort of healing? We need to continually think outside the box to care for our patients and families that are seeking spiritual healing.
Deacon Charles Stump is director of pastoral services for the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.