Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 28, 2002
Chaplains hear with their hearts
Journeying with a dying patient takes integrity and grace
By RENATO GANDIA
"Sometimes they are very wounded by the Church, so you don't start talking about God."
- Fr. Louis-Philippe Caissie
Plouffe insisted, "You can't do it from the outside. Patients know that immediately even though you don't talk about it. They know how available and authentic you are and if you've got integrity. Is she really on her faith journey or is she just doing her job?"
To journey with others is always a challenge. It is like moving into a new territory, new land, new darkness, pointed out Plouffe.
"You have to be grounded in prayer and to realize that you're the chaplain, but you're just an instrument. You're just a go-between. You're just a pointer to God, but you're not God."
The chaplain needs to leave space for God and get out of the way of God, said Plouffe.
"Hospital chaplains are spiritual care givers. We are trained and formed through the clinical pastoral education that prepares men and women to be spiritual care givers."
Chaplains are clinicians in a spiritual way, to put it simply.
"We are there to provide the spiritual care. The first thing that we need to do is we need to have good listening skills. Because that's how we determine the area of spiritual needs. So chaplains are expected to do a spiritual assessment of a person."
Being a chaplain is a humbling experience for Caissie. The retired priest told how chaplains deal with "something so sacred, especially when the journey is towards the end of people's life."
That's why it is imperative to hone listening skills. "Not only listening ears, but listening hearts," the priest stressed.
Reconciliation is frequently an issue. Some persons need to be reconciled with family members or with their own life.
People might have guilt, unfinished business with their personal life or with their religions. And when this comes, celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation becomes opportune.
"The sacrament for the sick and dying is only one part of the care. Sometimes we rush the sacrament and there's something deeper to explore," cautioned the priest.
For example, in the case of people dying with AIDS, "Sometimes they are very wounded by the Church, so you don't start talking about God. You have to wait until they bring the issue of God, faith, religion and all that. And sometimes they never do.
"Sometimes we rush the sacrament and there's something deeper to explore."
- Fr. Louis-Philippe Caissie
Life review is a process people often go through as they have been confronted with something that is life threatening, or if they are confronted with the possibility their life is coming to an end.
In such a process, chaplains accompany the patients in looking back through life, focusing on significant relationships and accomplishments. Some actions make them proud. Other things they have done make them ashamed and they look for ways to right the wrongs.
"Sometimes it's simply a matter of celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation for some Catholics," Johnson said.
After 11 years of chaplaincy, he encountered people with little or no religious experience at all who are trying to make sense of their lives and understand what death may be like for them.
"As a chaplain, one needs to be able to journey with the people with dignity and respect, helping them articulate what they needed to articulate."
The same is true with grieving relatives, added Johnson. "What is important for chaplains to do is also entering and walking with them in the grieving process."
Like other chaplains, what Johnson does is invite people to experience their grieving response instead of fighting it.
"The first piece of that is to acknowledge that somebody is dying. And even that can be painful for people.
"Sometimes to make it work, we have to hear the absolute refusal of the family that their relative is dying while the process of dying is happening before their eyes."
His primary focus is not to preach, articulate or defend God, but to hear and enter grieving people's pain, suffering, angst and anguish.
"In my hearing that, the theology that I utilize is called the incarnational theology . . . seeking to reflect that, even in the midst of difficult times, we are not alone because God is with us."
Once Johnson was told, "So is this what you do? Help people accept the death of their loved ones? What a shitty job."
Johnson replies,"I can't say that I enjoy the work because who could say they enjoy sitting with people in the darkest moment of their lives. But I can't think of more important ministry to do."
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