By David Lewellen
When chaplains at the NACC conference are not gathered en masse in the chapel or auditorium, they are keeping their brains busy with workshops and interest group gatherings.
On Friday afternoon, about 20 people sat in knots to talk about geriatric ministry. Jennifer Paquette told several interested listeners about the resident-centered model that she saw in action at Providence Mount St. Vincent in Seattle, where residents can choose what to do and when.
Across the hall, 25 chaplains sitting in rows participated in one freewheeling conversation about ministry in the emergency department and intensive care. Talk moved over death cafes, bereavement trains, chaplains’ responsibilities for releasing dead bodies (and for keeping the body out of the morgue until family arrives), and gently isolating hysterical relatives in the emergency department so that their grief does not raise the emotional temperature of other patients’ families.
After-dinner workshops covered topics ranging from cultural clues to pastoral field education. At a roundtable for directors of spiritual care, common themes emerged — advocating for more staff, checking the consistency of chaplains’ skills, managing volunteers, cultural and language proficiency. Not every problem got solved, but directors were relieved to learn that others shared their struggles.
At a well-attended workshop on the justice system, Fr. Dustin Seddon and Fr. George Williams said that at the moment, there is no infrastructure in place for Catholic prison ministry — unlike well-funded, well-networked evangelicals who are doing good work. The two priests have started the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition as a loosely organized information clearinghouse, with no current ambitions to incorporate or raise funds of their own.
The prison system, Fr. Williams said, “warps the reality that we are social beings.” Chaplains can offer prisoners human relationship, but need to be very aware of their own motivations in doing the work. “My biggest headache is volunteers, not prisoners,” he said. It is true that prisoners can be manipulative, but “when you take people’s choices away, the only way to get anything is by manipulating,” and chaplains, whether professional or volunteer “have to learn to say no lovingly.”
An unfortunate reality that most healthcare chaplains have not thought of is that a prison chaplain cannot be seen ministering to both prisoners and staff — the two groups are too opposed to each other. Eating lunch with the staff is a possibility, or doing marriages or baptisms off-site, but Fr. Williams said that if prisoners see him being friendly with the guards, he’ll be viewed as “a cop with a collar on.”
Catholics can usefully advocate for reform at the local and national level, he said, and it is one of the rare issues that finds support on both sides of the political spectrum. But he believes that a century from now, people may view the current prison system the way we now view slavery. “This system cannot be made nice.”
A Sunday workshop on online CPE began with the stipulation by presenter Jerry Kaelin that “3D is better than 2D.” But for aspiring chaplains in remote areas or on odd schedules, the flat video screen can be surprisingly effective. When a program like Zoom offers a close-up of every participant, “it’s harder to fall asleep in group,” he noted, to laughter.
Kaelin, a CPE supervisor at Loyola University Medical Center, said that all online CPE must be synchronous, or happening at the same time. Asynchronous material, such as reading an article, does not count. And remote video conferencing is more effective on a big screen, such as a desktop computer, than on a phone, he said. Loyola requires that CPE students taking a unit remotely have an onsite preceptor, to make sure they are doing the coursework and handling their pastoral care work satisfactorily – but there are no firm rules about the qualifications for a preceptor.