By Rev. Chidiebere Ogbuagu
The spring of 2009 went a long way toward shaping my spiritual journey from canon law to pastoral care and mission leadership. Quite a tough year! But God enlightened me and steered my decision compass in the way God knew and loved best.
At that time, I was simultaneously serving as a canon lawyer and as an on-call priest chaplain at a nearby hospital and healthcare center. Serving as a “defender of the sacrament of matrimony” in annulment processes in a U.S. diocesan catholic tribunal, I wondered about the connection between my ministries as a canon lawyer and as a chaplain. Earlier, I had served as a judge of both first and second instances in both diocesan, inter-diocesan, and regional tribunals for marriage annulment.
Canon law (a codified body of law governing church’s activities and administration) applies ecclesiastically endorsed legal principles to Christian life and ministries. However, salvation of the human person is its ultimate goal. Salvation in this sense is understood as ensuring that justice prevails in the relationship between the people of God, and that such justice is applied with equity and mercy.
As I walked through the corridors of the hospital where I served as a chaplain, I began to connect the dots and ask more questions about my dual roles. It appeared that as a priest chaplain and a canon lawyer, I was offering similar services but in diverse ways.
As a priest chaplain, I was engaging my patients and families in their pains, sufferings, and life stories. As I actively listened to their stories, remaining non-judgmental, I empathetically connected with them and provided emotional and spiritual support. As a canon lawyer, I listened to the stories of my clients going through emotional, spiritual, and psychological pains –sometimes attributable to marital crisis, religious-clerical crisis, administration crisis, etc. One couple might be asking for separation while the bond of marriage continued; another might be asking the judge to declare the nullity of their marriage.
In both chaplaincy and canonical cases, I found compassion as the substantive link that connects and defines both ministries. But how is compassion related to canon law? What connection exists between law and mercy? Do they not oppose each other? If they don’t, do they complement or supplement each other?
Those questions kept bugging me, as I deepened my reflection. Eureka! Finally, I found my answer in the last canon of the 1983 Code of Canon Law: “Salvation of the soul is the supreme law.”
My final decision to pursue the chaplaincy ministry and healthcare mission leadership came after my Clinical Pastoral Education classes. As the journey into my inner self gradually deepened through the CPE programs, I found more solace and strength to connect to the stories and lives of others, especially of patients and families I serve at healthcare facilities. I am joyfully and gratefully serving as a chaplain and mission leader. I hope that my ministries continue to bring to all, healing and consolation in diverse situations of life, reflective of the healing ministry of Jesus.
Rev. Chidiebere Ogbuagu, BCC, is vice president of mission and pastoral care at HCA Florida Mercy Hospital in Miami.