The scope of "health care" should extend well beyond the physical well-being of patients, according to Sister Elaine Hollis, SSJ.
As one of two Catholic chaplains at Hornell’s St. James Mercy Hospital, Sister Hollis is well-equipped to address the issue. She often joins doctors and other health-care professionals in case conferences, during which she assists her colleagues in determining how best to meet the needs of individual patients.
The purpose of such conferences, she explained, is "trying to see the person as not just a body, but also as someone with a spiritual part of them. It’s important not just to take care of the visible, physical part of (patients), but also the invisible, spiritual part of them."
Joining Sister Hollis and her follow chaplains at area health-care facilities in recognizing the connection between physical and spiritual well-being are dozens of parishes that have established visitation and health ministries, and the Diocese of Rochester, which offers a health-care ministry coordinated by Deacon John Brasley.
A chaplain’s role
With a long history of service in the diocese, hospital chaplains are on the front lines of ministry to the sick. According to Deacon Brasley, chaplains are currently stationed in at least half a dozen hospitals throughout the diocese, in addition to two psychiatric centers; two Veterans Affairs Medical Centers; Mercy Health and Rehabilitation Center in Auburn; and St. Ann’s Home in Rochester.
The work of a chaplain often varies from day to day, noted Sister Hollis, who also serves as chaplain at McCauley Manor at MercyCare, a component of the St. James Mercy Hospital complex that includes a nursing home, adult day-care center, and dialysis and chemical-dependency units.
Sister Hollis spends much of her day leading programs for clients of the adult and adolescent psychiatric units, the nursing home, and the facility’s continuing-treatment and mental-health services. During these group sessions, she helps participants make connections between spiritual themes — such as resurrection or new life — and their everyday lives.
Sister Hollis and Deacon Robert McCormick, the other Catholic chaplain at St. James Mercy, also spend a good deal of their time visiting individual patients and families.
"We look at their spiritual needs and answer any questions they have. We hopefully bring them closer to God in times of need,” Deacon McCormick said.
The deacon, who also facilitates group programs at the hospital, said he typically visits 40 or 50 patients each day. During such a visit, he often prays with the patient, asking God for healing and to watch over the patient’s doctors and nurses, and to return him or her home safely.
“I think it’s been proven that any health-related problem or any healing that needs to be done is directly proportional to the amount of faith a person has. Prayer and faith help the healing process,” he said.
When visiting a patient, a chaplain will always try to enhance the person’s spiritual well-being and address any spiritual discomfort or distress he or she might have, Sister Hollis said. Chaplains also can help patients understand their options regarding ethical issues and such advance directives as do-not-resuscitate orders.
Several priests are assigned to provide sacramental care at St. James Mercy, offering Communion, penance and anointing of the sick, Deacon McCormick added.
The sacraments are central to the Catholic faith, so it’s important that patients have access to them, Deacon Brasley said.
“As we go through different stages and changes (in life), the sacraments make those sacred moments. I think as people are critically ill, oftentimes they want to obtain the graces that are available through the sacraments," he said.
Yet obtaining the sacraments has become more challenging in recent years as this diocese and dioceses throughout the nation deal with the effects of a priest shortage. Many chaplaincies are now held by deacons and women religious rather than priests.
"Priests more and more are confined to parish ministry. That’s fine in most instances," he said. But, "when sacraments are required, it becomes more difficult."
To address this difficulty, he said, the diocese put together a new set of health-care-ministry policies that lay out the responsibilities of priest chaplains, Catholic coordinators and on-call priests serving at hospitals throughout the diocese, as well as the pastoral-care standards for those facilities.
Last year, diocesan officials also mapped out every hospital, nursing home and health-care facility in the 12-county diocese in terms of where they fall within the boundaries of diocesan parishes. If no chaplain has been assigned to a given facility, a priest at the parish within whose geographic boundaries the facility is located is responsible for providing sacramental care for the facility’s patients.
“For every health-care facility in this diocese, there is someone who is responsible for providing sacramental care,” Deacon Brasley said.
In the past, there had been some confusion as to whether sacramental care for a patient was the responsibility of the patient’s former parish or of the parish in which the health-care facility was geographically located, he added. While both parishes bear some responsibility in situations like this, ultimately geographic boundaries take precedence in determining responsibility for providing care to such a patient.
Meanwhile, lay volunteers in a number of parishes increasingly are taking on many non-sacramental hospital, home and nursing-home visits formerly handled by priests. Active visitation ministries have been established in many parishes and planning groups, including the Northwest Ontario Planning Group, Christ the King Parish in Irondequoit, and Good Shepherd and Guardian Angels parishes in Henrietta.
The visitation ministry at Good Shepherd and Guardian Angels consists of about 75 volunteers who visit homebound, nursing-home-bound and hospitalized members of both parishes, said Louise Valcourt, pastoral minister at Good Shepherd and visitation coordinator at Guardian Angels. The volunteers make weekly trips to two local nursing homes, visit approximately 30 homebound parishioners, and make between 35 and 75 hospital visits each month.
Each year the parishes conduct a six-week training course for new volunteers, Valcourt said. Through these sessions, new visitation ministers learn to respect the dignity and personal space of the people they will visit, and to approach them as equals rather than as a healthy person ministering to a sick person. They learn the importance of empathy and body language and how to pray with people.
For more than 20 years Good Shepherd also has conducted an annual blood drive on Good Friday, Valcourt noted.
"For my own self, and probably for most Catholics, it’s a sense of shedding our blood, just as Jesus shed his blood on Good Friday," she said. "We’re called as Christians to love our neighbors as he’s loved us."
Many other parishes also present regular blood drives; among them are St. Rita and St. Paul parishes in Webster; Holy Trinity and Holy Spirit parishes in Penfield; St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Greece; St. Anthony Parish in Groton; and Sacred Heart Parish in Auburn. Christ the King, St. Joseph in Penfield and St. Anne in Rochester are among diocesan parishes that regularly conduct blood-pressure screenings for their parishioners. As part of its ongoing mission to identify and address health-related needs at the parish, the health ministry at St. Anne also recently raised money to purchase and install an automatic electronic defibrillator.
The parish staff at St. Thomas More Parish in Brighton includes a faith-community nurse who is a registered nurse, and St. Michael Parish in Newark hosts an ecumenical support group for people affected by cancer. Many parish health ministries sponsor educational seminars about health-related topics. Good Shepherd Catholic Community in southern Cayuga County also presents such workshops for farm workers at the migrant camp in King Ferry.
Church communities provide perfect places for such health-related education because parishes interact with their parishioners from birth until death and are typically trusted by parishioners, said B.J. Cunningham, co-coordinator of the health ministry at Christ the King.
"The church provides a nonthreatening environment which is conducive to healing and caring concern," Cunningham said.