By Patricia M. Crowley
Jubilation! Notification of certification! Recognition by the Church and its leadership of my calling to serve God and God’s people as a board-certified chaplain, the culmination of my decades-long journey to professional chaplaincy.
How would I celebrate? I quickly realized that I wanted to attend my first NACC national conference, focusing on the missioning ceremony for newly certified chaplains. I would take time away from my challenging position as a hospice chaplain and bereavement coordinator to rejoice and give thanks to God, continue my chaplaincy education, and reflect on the gifts God has bestowed on me. As I reviewed the registration materials, I decided to participate in a day of reflection before the conference; I was long overdue for a retreat experience.
The week of the conference, I worked long hours to see my patients and arrange to cover patient and family needs while I was away. Wednesday afternoon finally arrived; I was excited for the trip, and very much in need of time away. When the airline called to advise that my flight had been delayed, I actually breathed a sigh of relief that I would not have to rush to the airport.
But by the time I arrived at the airport, my flight had been canceled due to Washington’s spring storm. I was disappointed to learn that I could not fly out until the next evening, meaning that I would miss the day of reflection. However, I was happy to have a quiet, restful evening at home, and planned to spend extra time in personal reflection and prayer on Thursday. I could still attend the Friday pre-conference workshops and rehearsal for the missioning ceremony.
The news got worse. Early Thursday morning, I was awakened by a call from the airline, telling me that conditions in Washington had forced the cancellation of my flight. Exhausted, I went back to sleep. I called the airline midmorning, and was finally connected to a live person more than three hours later. Due to the severity of the storm, the best plan seemed to be to book the last seat available on the same flight Friday evening and hope that the runways would be safe by then.
I was devastated that I would now also miss the opening session of the conference, and the mandatory rehearsal for the missioning ceremony. I shared my disappointment with my sisters, and they encouraged me to stay positive. They also encouraged me to enjoy my time away from work, wherever I was.
As I took their advice, I realized that I was experiencing a personal day of reflection at home. I literally gave the trip back to God, knowing that God would clear away obstacles if the trip was in my best interest. Through prayer, God reminded me to trust and have patience. My Ignatian spirituality helped me to find God in all things: kindness and patience of airline personnel who helped me rebook my flights, courtesy of hotel personnel who waived “no show” charges, emotional support of my siblings, time away from work, assurance by NACC personnel that flight cancellations would not prevent my participation in the missioning ceremony. The Lord blessed me with peace and understanding as I waited for the trip to begin.
The blessings continued on Friday. My trip to the airport was unhurried and uneventful. I was seated in first class on the airplane, even while using frequent flyer miles to travel! The flight was smooth, the ground transportation was easy, and my hotel room was ready. God had brought me safely to the conference.
Saturday brought more blessings: meeting NACC professional staff, finding colleagues from my metropolitan area, workshop experiences that will enhance my ministry and personal life. Our God of surprises was active when I ran into a dear friend from ministry graduate school whom I had not seen in many months, and she and I were able to share the “first NACC conference” experience together throughout the weekend.
The Saturday celebration of the Eucharist was moving and meaningful. Our NACC episcopal liaison, Bishop Donald Hying, shared insights from his seminary experience as a CPE student, in my city at a hospital where I had also received chaplaincy training. It struck me that Bishop Hying’s understanding of chaplaincy, as a truly deep experience of Christ in the self and in the other, stems from his time of lay ministry, before his ordination to the priesthood. The bishop acknowledged that Christ’s healing ministry is continued by both lay and ordained members of the Body of Christ; this realization was a great affirmation to me of the gift of chaplaincy that I have received as a lay woman. NACC is fortunate to have this compassionate, articulate episcopal liaison, and it was my great privilege to shake his hand while receiving my certificate.
Other highlights of the conference were the plenary speakers, who shared their insights about the presence of religion and spirituality in medical settings, finding God in the mundane gifts of administration, and the implications of Pope Francis’ papacy on chaplaincy and the Catholic Church. Throughout the conference, the prayerful liturgies filled with joyous music fed my spirit. I appreciated the opportunity during the business session to learn more about NACC, give feedback and participate in the future of NACC. I look forward to getting more involved in the years to come.
I highly recommend that all newly certified chaplains plan to celebrate this important vocational milestone by attending the NACC national conference. I pray that you will find God, and God will find you, in the experience!
Patricia M. Crowley, BCC, is bereavement coordinator and chaplain at St. Catherine’s Hospice in La Place, LA.