Parish workers urged to show compassion

Chaplain Dr. Margaret Clark says compassion operates at the same level as a celebration.


Chaplain Dr. Margaret Clark says compassion operates at the same level as a celebration.

June 11, 2012

EDMONTON – Parish workers, including pastoral assistants, parish secretaries and cooks, are drawn together by "a commitment to caring in the spirit of Jesus Christ," said Dr. Margaret Clark.

"While there are differences between us in education and lived experience, the differences serve as a diversity," Clark told those attending Pastoral Assistants' Day, held May 30 at Providence Renewal Centre.

Everyone who comes into the care of pastoral assistants is vulnerable in some way, she said. Compassion is all about recognizing that vulnerability and working with the person so as to support the person without increasing his or her vulnerability.

"It's that sense of recognizing in ourselves the reality of vulnerability and recognizing in others the reality of vulnerability, and having that capacity within us to respond to the vulnerability in such a way that the person does not feel overwhelmed by our kindness or care."

Clark, a teaching chaplain in spiritual care and cultural services at the University of Alberta Hospital, has more than 40 years of experience in parish ministry, retreat work, spiritual direction and hospital chaplaincy.

Compassion, she said, operates at the same level as a celebration.

Rather than a feeling of pity, the focus should be on togetherness. Being together in solidarity allows people to rejoice at another's joy and grieve at another's sorrow. Both celebration and sorrow are integral to compassion, she said.

Hospitality is another essential element of compassion. Welcoming a stranger without judgment deepens one's ability to love as Jesus loves.

Clark shared biblical viewpoints on compassion, and how stories from those sacred Judeo-Christian texts still relate to us today.

The Hebrew word "racham" draws on the bodily images of the bowels and the womb. The word depicts compassion as a visceral response to a loved one. Racham means moved inwardly with compassion, whether deep-felt mercy, tenderhearted love or gut-wrenching pity.


"In the Hebrew mind, the place where compassion was felt was in the gut. It was a gut response," she said.

Old Testament examples of racham can be found in Genesis 43.30, 1 Kings 3.26, Isaiah 63.7 and Hosea 2.19.

Clark asked the pastoral assistants to share in group discussion what stirrings of compassion sing in their hearts. Those stories were then shared among everyone.

Common stories involved commiserating with those who have lost loved ones, those diagnosed with a disease and deal with infighting in the Church over changes seen as regressive. Experiences of loss invoked compassion.


"Spontaneous generosity often flows out of compassion when we hear of tragedy," said Clark, citing the earthquake in Haiti as an example.

Clark shared her own stories about working in South Africa before apartheid ended. As head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu heard the stories of the abusers and the abused.

Clark wept slightly as she spoke of Tutu with his head on the table crying, exposed to the pain of his people.

Just as he showed outward compassion for anti-apartheid movement, Clark showed outward compassion for him.