By Denice S. Foose and Theodore M. Smith
In spring 2018, the Catholic Chaplain Corps of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston launched a major initiative to enhance pastoral care ministry to Roman Catholics in settings such as hospitals, long-term healthcare facilities, and residential homes. We hope that the program will later expand to prison ministry and a maritime setting.
It has been a goal of the archdiocese to establish a larger, better coordinated ministry to Catholics beyond the parish setting. The need is self-evident. The diocese has 1.7 million Catholic parishioners within its 10 counties, with 133 resident priests serving 146 parishes. While the numbers document the need, they also point to a vision: recruit, support, and equip Catholic laypersons to augment the ministry of the clergy.
The diocesan program began with hospital ministry because the number of hospitals is vast: 25 within the city of Houston, 84 in Harris County (which encircles Houston), and scores more in the nine-county area.
The starting point is the Texas Medical Center, the world’s largest medical complex with six large, acute-care hospitals. Years ago the archdiocese established the Catholic Chaplain Corps to assist outreach by assigning additional priests to the TMC. Unfortunately, the number of priests has dramatically decreased, yet the number of Catholic patients continues to increase, with a staggering 21 percent to 25 percent of TMC patients identified as Catholic.
Upon receiving a grant for the program from the Foundation of Catholic Health Initiatives-St. Luke’s Health, the archdiocese implemented a customized administrative structure to address the large TMC hospitals and the smaller regional hospitals. Simultaneously, a three-tier educational system was begun to equip Catholic laity, called pastoral visitors, to serve in those settings.
Administrative Structures and New Positions
To provide administrative oversight to large hospitals, a full-time position was created, called a lay chaplain. This is a diocesan-funded position, accountable to judicatory’s Human Resources Department, but the office is located in the hospital chaplain’s suite.
Imperative to the program is the professional training of the lay chaplain, requiring a minimum of two units of CPE. In the past six months, we have successfully installed two lay chaplains at two TMC hospitals, and plans are now being finalized to appoint a third. Their job description includes:
- Identify Catholic patients on the daily census.
- Establish collegial relationships with clinical staff to foster integrated service.
- Coordinate the ministry of pastoral visitors (trained Catholic lay persons) to these patients.
- Conduct follow-up visits to patients not seen by the pastoral visitors.
- Triage requests for Catholic ministry, determining when a priest is warranted. This 24/7 service is especially helpful to on-call CPE students.
A different approach was designed for the suburban areas. Focusing on one specific region, we agreed with three large parishes to create a lay coordinator position with administrative responsibility for ministry to parishioners in hospitals and nursing homes, plus those who are homebound. The position is funded by these churches. The lay coordinator has been serving in this capacity for the past few months and meets regularly with pastoral visitors from these congregations and with the respective hospital chaplains.
To enhance the ministry of the pastoral visitors, a three-tier educational system was created. More than 200 students matriculated through the spring courses, and we anticipate a similar number for the fall. The following summaries provide an overview of the courses:
- Module One – a 12-hour program designed to introduce the pastoral care basics, including empathic listening, pastoral identity, intercessory prayer, and scripture. A three-person faculty leads this program.
- Module Two – a 30-hour, 12-week series that addresses topics such as grief theory, death and dying, coping with physical pain, palliative care, Hispanic-American Catholic spirituality, and the ERDs. Writing assignments include verbatim and weekly reflective papers.
- Certificate Course – a collaborative two-year program with St. Mary’s Seminary faculty, consisting of eight-week sessions. St. Mary’s professors provide lectures on many standard seminary topics, while program faculty leads supplemental pastoral seminars. The course is designed to increase the participants’ theological and biblical knowledge and help integrate those intellectual gains with their clinical ministry.
Success and Challenge
In many ways, the initiative has gone remarkably well. More Catholic hospital patients are being seen by Catholic representatives, more pastoral visitors are being recruited and trained, and sacramental requests have been expedited. In addition, communication between assigned priests and chaplaincy departments has improved.
Administrative demands have represented the biggest challenge, including attention to organizational detail and alertness to differing institutional practices. Thankfully, through the experience of the past several months, an effective process has emerged, which bodes well for the continued expansion of the program.
The newly crafted competencies have been and will continue to be helpful in designing the educational programs. Every competency in each category has been studied and paired with the most appropriate course. The response to the educational programs has been quite encouraging and portends a robust diocesan program of education and ministry.
Denice S. Foose, BCC, MBA, is associate director of the Catholic Chaplain Corps of the Archdiocese. Theodore M. Smith, D.Min. BCC, recently retired as director of mission integration at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston.