By Fr. Richard Leliaert
What Abraham Lincoln beautifully called “the mystic chords of memory” come to mind as I share personal memories of the NACC. However my aging memory is not all that it used to be. So I ask your pardon if I unintentionally omit or err as I share my gratitude for all that the NACC has meant to me.
Shortly after getting my doctorate in 1974, I wanted to balance my head with my heart. As a priest, I needed to be a pastor as well as an academic. So I took a unit of CPE at the Indiana-Purdue University Medical Center in Indianapolis. This experience sowed the seeds of my interest in chaplaincy as I grew to understand my strengths and weaknesses as a minister to people dealing with illness, suffering, life and death. While teaching at Nazareth College in Kalamazoo, MI (1977-87), I did part-time chaplaincy at Borgess Hospital while developing a course called Issues in Life and Death. This course began in response to the needs of student nurses who were struggling with dying patients: How do I work with grieving families? How do I cope with the ethical issues in medicine?
Once I left teaching, I was hired as a chaplain at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in the Detroit area. My colleagues suggested I join a professional chaplains group. The NACC was the obvious choice, but then I learned I needed to be certified. How well I remember struggling in that certification interview. But I made it. My commitment to the NACC helped me to appreciate the importance of being a certified professional chaplain while professing a strong faith, hope and love in sharing in Jesus’ ministry of healing.
In the mid-1990s, my involvement with the NACC took off. While working at Oakwood Hospital in Dearborn, MI, I began to get involved with the then-Region VI of NACC, Michigan and Ohio. I recall the enthusiasm of the regional meetings and some great speakers like Sr. Jose Hobday. Local meetings enabled us to get more involved with issues such as certification. I did spend a lot of time with certification, as an interviewer and counselor. These interviews helped us surface more eventual national leaders such as Bridget Deegan-Krause. My involvement with certification solidified when I became representative of the regional directors to the national certification team, whose work I grew to respect and to admire.
Then in the late 1990s, my name surfaced as a candidate for president of the NACC. I accepted the nomination and I was elected. But these were times of transition from the regional model to a board model, so I had to run again for chair of the newly formed Board of Directors. I had the unusual honor of being both the last elected president and the first chair of the board of the NACC. I remember our first board meeting in Milwaukee as we all realized that the NACC was indeed entering into a whole new era in its history. The regional model had many strengths, but there were way too many committees, and it proved difficult to streamline needed reforms in financial matters and infrastructure.
The most memorable event of my three-year term as chair was the special convention in Toronto in 2003, when the five cognate groups (NACC, APC, AAPC, NAJC, CAPPE) voted to work together as a unified body to enhance the dignity and mission of chaplaincy. The executive directors of the cognate groups were very instrumental in this process, and I was thankful for the leadership of Fr. Joe Driscoll, then and throughout my years in the NACC.
One project meant a lot to me personally while enhancing the reputation of the NACC — our membership in the National Coalition for Health Professional Education in Genetics. My experiences on ethics committees got me thinking about the Human Genome Project and the impact that genetics issues might raise for our NACC members. The NACC leadership supported the idea, and I became our representative at the national annual meetings of NCHPEG in Washington. I and another APC chaplain, Vincent Guss, moderated a panel during the 2004 meeting. It was very well-received and garnered the respect of many NCHPEG people for both the religious/ethical issues affecting genetics and for the role of chaplains on medical ethics committees.
After I left the board in 2004, the NACC underwent some difficult times. Karen Pugliese described a lot of the transitions of those years in her Vision article of January-February 2015. There was a lot of personal transition going on in my own life as well, as I left my religious order, the Crosiers, to be incardinated as a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2004. I stayed on at Oakwood Hospital until 2006 when I became pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Redford, MI. In my busy years as pastor, I’ve been unable to keep as close to the NACC as I would like, but I’m still a member and a chaplain emeritus.
There are so many NACC people whom I haven’t mentioned, but you are all in my heart and mind and prayer, and a special hug to two special friends in leadership, Mary Lou O’Gorman and David Lichter. I wish I had been able to attend the wonderful 50th anniversary celebration last April (especially since a dear friend, Bev Beltramo, was a key organizer), but it did my heart good to learn that the NACC keeps sharpening its vision for the future. Ad multos annos, NACC, and God bless us all.
Fr. Richard Leliaert is pastor of St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Redford, MI.