The Chaplains Who Comfort the Suffering During the Coronavirus Pandemic
We are making a brief pause in our Garden Tour today to share a couple of beautiful articles on the personal experience of Hospital Chaplains during this time of uncertainty. The first is an article from the New Yorker sent to Fr. Aidan by Rabbi Suzanne H. Carter and it speaks of the struggles of hospital chaplains to get close to suffering patients in this time of “social distancing.” The second is our own Fr. Philp Joly taking us closer home by sharing his own personal experience in St. Mary’s Hospital.
Please click on the link below to go to the New Yorker article and then scroll down to see Fr. Philip’s reflection.
Keeping Hope Alive:
A view from closer to home
by: Fr. Philip Joly, Director of Pastoral Care
for St. Mary’s Medical Center, West Palm Beach, Florida
(Tuesday April 14, 2020)
Fr. Philip celebrating Mass in the Chapel of St. Mary's Hospital
In the Church, we call today the Tuesday within the Octave of Easter. The Gospel reading is taken from John chapter 20, wherein Mary Magdalene encounters the risen Jesus for the very first time. After she recognizes him, for she thought he was the gardener, Jesus says to her, “Mary do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.” This is such an appropriate Gospel for our current time.
The arrival and rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has irrevocably changed the lives of people all across our planet. It cares not for one’s race, social or economic status, geographical location, profession, age, gender, orientation, religious tradition, political affiliation, marital status or any of the barriers we care to erect between each other. It is an equal opportunity virus, and it is lethal. It has also brought with it the necessity for us not to cling to one another, literally. We have come to know this safety practice in recent weeks as Social Distancing. So, according to today’s selection from John, Jesus could be considered the founder of Social Distancing!
In the near constant flow of the news, you have heard accounts and seen images from the “hot spots” where the virus has overwhelmed hospitals, such as New York City. Even though we have not had the terrifying amounts of viral infections here in Palm Beach County as we have seen from our neighbors to the North, we have nonetheless been infected by the virus and something nearly as destructive: by fear. That is the most noticeable change working in St. Mary’s Medical Center, and it has forced us to adapt how we minister.
The hospital is devoid of visitors. Access to the hospital has been limited to only two entrances, and even employees have been limited as to where they can enter as well. Everyone must wear a surgical mask all day. Many have been asked to work from home if they can. Some parts of the hospital are ghost towns of sorts. Two entire units have been designated Covid-19 units and access to those is restricted only to essential medical staff. Even chaplains are not permitted to visit unless it is a dire emergency, and even then, only after donning full protective gear making us all seem less human.
My chaplain staff of five has been reduced by two. Unfortunately, they are my two most popular ministers, my Rock Stars, the nuns! Sisters Mary Murphy and Betty Frascino, our lifeline to the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany who founded St. Mary’s over 80 years ago, are within the age bracket that places them at higher risk for infection. I have asked them to stay home out of an abundance of caution. They help in their own way by praying for all of us and speaking with staff by telephone. Sister Betty quipped the other day, “Now I know what it’s like to be a cloistered nun!”
My remaining three chaplains, Fr. Jacob, Rev. Carlos, Rev. Lena, and myself spend our days rounding the different units of the hospital paying particular attention to our medical staff. When Fr. Aidan directed the spiritual care program prior to me, he coined the phrase, “loitering with intent,” to describe this action. It is humbling to be told our mere presence on a unit is a great comfort, and we are asked regularly, “When are you stopping by today?” What has made it more difficult, however, is our inability to embrace someone, because sometimes you just need that hug! Humans are social beings by nature, and the inability to offer something so simple yet so powerful as an embrace, or an arm around the shoulder to reinforce our support and solidarity makes our work feel like it has been neutered to an extent.
I can only speak for myself, however, I believe my chaplains would all agree with me when I say that I come home in the evening exhausted for an entirely different reason these days. A palpable fear, and dare I say it, terror pervades our hallways and nursing units. Fuses can be short from time to time. Being the water that quenches those fuses and helps wash away those fears takes its toll. Even though we are doing our best to take every conceivable precaution, the specter of infection is always hovering over the shoulders of our medical staff and us as well. But we press on keeping hope alive.
At the beginning of each week now I share by email to the entire staff an excerpt from the book, Hope Notes. It was written by a retired hospital chaplain, and I have used the stories contained within as a springboard to preach from at St. Patrick. I share just one a week so as to let it percolate over time. It helps me to write them out, and in so doing, enjoy them anew. And the staff have been gleaning great comfort from them as well. Fr. Jacob and I take turns offering private Mass in our chapel for our entire St. Mary’s family, and I have asked my three remaining chaplains to organize a series of three inter-faith services for any staff who can attend, socially distant of course, for this coming Friday in order to raise each other up to God in that great conversation we know as prayer.
Each year we receive four seminarians from St. Vincent de Paul Seminary in Boynton Beach. They come to learn how to minister in a hospital setting, although now the program has been suspended until this crisis passes. The program begun by Fr. Aidan, and continued by me, has become an enormously popular field assignment. The primary skill that we emphasize they learn is listening. There is an enormous amount of inner healing that can come from knowing that you are being listened to, and not judged. There is an inner peace that can take hold when you know that you are the exclusive focus of this person sitting before you listening to your concerns, your hopes, your pain and your grief. I am learning this all over again in such a profound manner in this age of pandemic and the detrimental effect it is having on our nurses and physicians.
If you have made it this far, I thank you for being my listener. Please hold us, all of us – the first responders, nurses, doctors, technicians, and so many others on the front lines – in prayer. Even though it may seem that death has the last word, we know by the Resurrection, which we have just celebrated, albeit by digital format, teaches us that Life does. Let us, together, keep hope alive.