By Michele Le Doux Sakurai
“The spiritual growth of the aging person is affected by the community and affects the community. Aging demands the attention of the entire Church.” (USCCB Pastoral Message on Growing Older within the Faith Community)
In the parish, chaplains can provide direct care, mentor, and/or teach. The skills we share can have an incredible impact in this setting. Although the parish has not been the usual professional setting for chaplains (in contrast to hospitals, hospices, skilled nursing centers, mental health institutions, and prisons), the need for chaplain expertise is growing in our communities. As mainline churches, including the Catholic Church, are aging, the needs of older members are becoming more evident. Traditionally, Eucharistic ministers visited the homebound. In our parish, the role of Eucharistic minister is moving toward a broader pastoral care minister role. This ministry includes sacramental, pastoral, emotional, social, and service (meals, mowing the lawn, etc.) support. Our new Pastoral Care Committee has developed an infrastructure for communications, identified resources, and educated the pastoral care ministers about referrals and resources.
The new pastoral care ministers expressed some anxiety about home visits in this expanded function, and I was asked to facilitate conversation. Would they be able to offer support during difficult conversations? What if they say the “wrong” thing? I looked at models for learning and found that a modified use of the verbatim could fit the needs of the group.
I used blind verbatims (those with any patient-identifying information removed) that dealt with difficult issues, such as estrangement from church, domestic abuse, and suicide. Each month, the pastoral care ministers were given an amended verbatim that ended with a statement of surprise. A few of these statements from my own practice include:
- “My husband beats me and he put me in the hospital. He says if I divorce him, I will go to hell – with him.”
- (from a dying patient) “My pastor says if I had more faith, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”
- “The pain got so bad that I bought drugs on the street, and they helped. I had promised God I would never do drugs again. God can never forgive me for breaking my promise.”
- “I believe that if God’s love is truly unconditional, then the greatest statement of faith I can make is to commit suicide.”
The pastoral care ministers sit at tables for five or six people. They are handed a verbatim. It is read aloud, and they are given time to reflect on the patient’s story with an emphasis on the statement of surprise. The members discuss at their tables with the aid of a certified chaplain or a spiritual director. We also use and value the insights of our parish nurses. The tables report to the full group those responses that seem most helpful. At the end of the discussion, the rest of the original verbatim is read, and the ministers are given the opportunity to critique, question, and comment on the chaplain’s interactions in the verbatim.
We used the verbatim model three times over the course of four months. During this time, the ministers began to identify common responses and reactions that they found helpful. First, they were relieved that they could listen without needing to defend the church or a position. Secondly, taking the time needed to listen and fully honor the story of the parishioner is vital. Thirdly, gratitude can change the nature of the moment, as when the pastoral care minister spoke of their appreciation for being allowed to hear the story of the other. The sharing of the story becomes transformational as it helps to build hope, trust, and community. The verbatim exercises also provided experiences that lessened their anxieties about being challenged by a statement of surprise. By practicing in the group, they developed confidence in their ability to provide compassionate and competent care.
The role of the chaplain begins at the bedside. This, along with the wisdom that develops over years of visits and the blessing of sharing sacred moments, becomes the foundation needed to mentor those in the community who wish to provide compassionate service to those who are homebound. Pastoral care ministers and parishioners alike are enriched by the skills that arise through chaplaincy. Ministry of presence opens up the power of the sacred encounter, and both the pastoral care minister and the homebound experience the Biblical promise:
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
…because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise. (Isaiah 43:19,20b-21)
Michele Le Doux Sakurai, BCC, has spent 27 years in chaplaincy. She has retired from hospital chaplaincy and is now providing support in the parish setting.