By Fr. Andrew Turner
Pastoral care of the sick depends on teamwork and co-responsibility of all involved. As a priest for 16 years, and a professor of pastoral theology for 10 of those years, I have found that lay chaplains and ordained priests working collaboratively can form the hub of a vibrant pastoral care ministry.
In the recent synodal process, I found hopeful encouragement that collaboration is possible and should occur more frequently, especially between pastoral care chaplains and parish priests – as we have worked to create for more than a decade in the Diocese of Cleveland.
St. Mary Seminary requires seminarians to visit one of our local Catholic hospitals for five days of intensive workshops over the course their pastoral internship year. The purpose is to introduce these future priests into hospital chaplaincy through teamwork and co-responsibility.
This is not a formal clinical pastoral education program, which the seminarians are encouraged to complete later in their formation. Instead, these intensive workshops introduce them to healthcare administrators and chaplains and engage in group reflections to identify shared gifts and models of future partnership. Seminarians learn, for instance, that lay chaplains can and do offer viaticum, and they willingly refer patients back to chaplains for follow-up after their visit.
The workshops are less about practical skills for pastoral care ministry, and more about prayerful discernment of gifts, empowerment of ministers, and increased participation in shared partnership.
First, to ground a theology of shared responsibility, our seminarians use a personality assessment, in which they are affirmed in their God-given gifts and get to know each other’s strengths more intimately. Through a greater awareness of how their gifts can be used in pastoral care, the seminarians learn to support and empower each other, the chaplains, and all who collaborate in their ministry.
Second, healthy teamwork celebrates honest and open communication, breaking down barriers between women and men from different ages, races, cultures, and socio-economic backgrounds. Teamwork requires an ongoing commitment by the seminarians to invite and empower other voices through reflective listening. Teaching seminarians to listen to pastoral care needs and priorities becomes essential information for conversations where ordained and lay leaders share space at the decision-making table.
Third, God is best glorified when the greatest number of people participate most fully in the mission of Christ. Decreasing numbers of ordained priests requires a greater focus on the shared responsibility between parishes and hospitals. When seminarians engage in prayerful reflection with the chaplains, they learn how to better prioritize their service to the whole Body of Christ after they are ordained priests. This also fosters opportunities to reach outward to neighborhood organizations and ecumenical relationships to better serve the sick in their communities.
Collaborative leaders recognize that all members of God’s family share responsibility for the ministry of healing mind, body, and spirit. St. Paul frequently acknowledged the importance of partnership, especially during his imprisonment. As he wrote the believers in Philippi, “I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5). In this verse, the Greek word used for “partnership” is koinonia, which expresses a deeper fellowship than mere association.
Though we face painful limitations and confusing divisions in the Church, involving seminarians in intentional dialogue with hospital chaplains is bearing fruit for better teamwork and co-responsibility in ministry.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, these ongoing efforts are leading our priests to a renewed vigor for caring for the sick and hospitalized. This shared partnership between our seminarians and chaplains is a light of hope for sustainable pastoral care ministry in our region.
Fr. Andrew Turner was ordained in 2006 and currently ministers as the Coordinator of Pastoral Formation at St. Mary Seminary in the Diocese of Cleveland.