By Sharon Schmidt
I was visiting a friend in the hospital when the chaplain came in. John introduced me to Fr. Tom as a friend and a Communion minister from his parish. Almost immediately, Fr. Tom asked me whether I would consider bringing Communion to the patients in the hospital. I had never given any thought to becoming a minister of care, and I told him so.
But within a couple of days, Fr. Tom called to say that a hospital in the area was offering training for ministers of care. I did not need to make a commitment. I should go to the training, continue discerning, and make my decision then.
And so I did. Four Saturdays in May. That was in 2004. It occurred to me during this time that maybe I was being called to this ministry and not just by Fr. Tom! I continued to pray and discern.
About a month after I began bringing Communion to the patients at the hospital, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Surely, I would not be able to fulfill my ministerial commitment while undergoing treatment — or could I? I did. And I didn’t miss even one of my scheduled days.
I was working full time, and I usually brought Communion to the patients on weekends. If I happened to meet a chaplain, the chaplain always greeted me and thanked me for being there to minister to the patients. They told me how important it was that I was there. I was continually affirmed. Other affirmations came in the way Mrs. Cook took my hand in hers and wouldn’t let go or the joyful tear on Mr. Peters’ face as he prayed with me.
My day usually began with a brief stop in the chapel, asking what God would do through me that day. I wanted to leave whatever I was carrying with me at the door of the chapel so I could be present with those I was visiting. Likewise, I would reflect at the end of my time with patients and their families.
It was not long into my volunteering that I began hearing the call to hospital chaplaincy. It seems obvious now, but I had no idea whom to ask how to become a chaplain and where I might find the requirements necessary. Once I decided to act, I did not run into the staff chaplains, or I did not think to ask. I had no idea there was an NACC or an APC, and they did not readily show up in my internet searches at the time. Finally, I found the CPE supervisor at the hospital at which I was volunteering. Not only could he answer my questions, but he encouraged me.
But I needed a master’s degree. I didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. There would be a lot of school in my future. Four units of CPE. What is CPE? I was working, full time. Our kids were still in school. I did not see any way that this was going to happen. Maybe I was not being called to hospital chaplaincy.
So I continued to work at a job that was taking the life out of me. I continued to be the best wife and mother I could be. I continued to bring Communion to the Catholic patients at the hospital. And I continued to pray, asking God to be a little clearer. If God was calling me to hospital chaplaincy, God would show me how it would be possible.
Then it happened. My company was looking for volunteers to leave. So, after 36 years at the job I just never left, I left. And I went to school.
I began my coursework in September 2009, graduating with a master of arts in pastoral studies in May 2015. I began my first unit of CPE at the hospital where I had been volunteering in January 2014. I completed a residency in August 2015 and applied for certification with NACC in February 2016, just weeks before I started as full-time staff chaplain.
Hindsight is 20-20. God’s call is so clear now. But it wasn’t always. Maybe it was because I wasn’t listening or because I was too quick to let the roadblocks stop me. I believe that God puts people in our lives to help us when our ears can’t — or won’t — hear. God gives us good people to remind us of the gifts God has given us and to demonstrate how we might use those gifts to live the Gospel, to accompany us on that journey, and to affirm us.
Since I finished my training, I have mentored some CPE students, and I do some Minister of Care training in my community. I use story-telling throughout the training, and, of course, my call is right at the beginning of the training as I reinforce the call of every person in that room. This is a great forum to encourage folks who are already interested and discerning whether to take the next step.
Telling you this story, here and now, my journey seems a whirlwind. Let me tell you that many times along the way, it seemed this journey would never end. It probably never will.
Sharon Schmidt, BCC, is staff chaplain at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.