A hospital chaplain’s duty is to be there for people in time of need, even if in silence. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Embracing the silence in hospital ministry

By  Fr. Yaw Acheampong
  • November 16, 2023

“You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God”
-- Isaiah 41:9-10

When visitors think of hospitals, they think of all the noise, the machines and movement: patients going for tests and those coming back from tests. The visitors also think of the conversations in the hallways and in the patients’ rooms. In fact, I usually provide spiritual care to the sick and their family members through my conversation with them to explore how to serve them. Yet, in the midst of these activities, there are also moments of silence.

On a typical busy morning, I went to visit a newly admitted patient to the hospital. In his room, I met two visitors who identified themselves as retired Roman Catholic priests.  They had come to visit their priest friend Fr. Joseph, also retired. Before the two visitors left, they requested that I visit Fr. Joseph regularly.  I went to visit Fr. Joseph but because of his medical condition, I was not able to have any conversation with him. I would sit quietly at his bedside, say a prayer and leave.

On another occasion, I visited a middle-aged patient, Diana. Diana shared with me that she had been given “bad news” about her disease. After a brief conversation between us, she closed her eyes and became quiet. I also became quiet. After a brief moment, I asked her if I could leave and come back another time. She invited me to stay on, but the silence between us continued. She eventually opened her eyes and thanked me for the visit. Diana also asked me to bring her Holy Communion the next day.

The two cases I have described are examples of a unique aspect of hospital ministry: being silent during a visit. In a situation like that of Fr. Joseph, where the patient may be incoherent or unconscious, it is obvious that being silent during the visit would be the appropriate way to spend some time. I have encountered similar situations in which family members have asked me to visit their loved ones.  On the other hand, in a situation like that of Diana, even though she was coherent, silence was what she needed at that time. When I visited Diana the following day, she told me that the silence helped her to “process the bad news.” The visit offered her a “glimpse of hope.”

So, what is the spiritual significance of silence during a visit to the sick or family members? Hospital ministry to the sick is based on the teaching of the Gospel and it is patterned on how Jesus ministered to the sick. Being present to the people means that I meet them where they are at that particular moment in their lives. Every time I visit patients and their family members, each situation is unique. In order to support them best, I enter the room discerning with the Holy Spirit what is the appropriate way to care for them.

In my ministry, I have learned that in challenging situations such as of end of life, patients and family members may grapple with spiritual questions: questions about their faith, life, suffering, pain and about God. In such difficult situations, being present and in silence can be a more powerful way of providing support. I remember a visit I had with John, who had come to visit a loved one who was dying.  During a previous visit I had celebrated the Sacrament of the Sick as he requested. With tears in his eyes, John asked me a question about God and suffering.  It was a difficult question and my first instinct was to try to answer the question, hoping that my words may bring comfort and peace to John. Instead, I decided to pull up a chair to sit next to John by the bedside of the patient. Being present in silence was my expression of spiritual support to show John that he was not alone in his pain. In the face of human suffering and pain, even the best words of comfort cannot explain suffering away.

Being present even when we cannot chat with the patient or a family member is something that we can all do to accompany the sick on their spiritual journey. Such a visit can create an atmosphere of calmness and peace. I have experienced that being silent during a visit can also create a feeling of uneasiness. Yet, it is in such situations in the ministry that we encounter the merciful presence of God with His peace, compassion and love.

(Fr. Yaw Acheampong is priest-chaplain at St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.)