A hospital priest-chaplain’s responsibility is to show concern for patients so they might experience God’s love. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Faith in action: hospital ministry

By  Fr. Yaw Acheampong
  • May 23, 2024

"For I will restore health to you and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord"
-- Jeremiah 30:17

How would you feel if you found yourself admitted to a hospital and the hospital priest-chaplain came to visit? 

At St. Michael’s Hospital there is a tradition — patients when they are being admitted can indicate their religion as part of their admission documentation. Family members can do the same for incoherent or unconscious patients. Every day, I use the list of Roman Catholic patients to know who to visit so I can learn how I can offer them pastoral support. 

Sometimes, I am called to see patients, listed and unlisted, who want to see the hospital priest-chaplain. Such visits are for specific reasons.  More importantly, the patients know I am coming to see them. There are usually no surprises. 

However, during my hospital ministry, I have learned patients respond in different ways to the visits that I make when they haven’t requested a visit. Some may connect me to the Catholic faith tradition and request for the celebration of a sacrament, prayers or just a chat. I also encounter patients who tell me that they no “longer practice the Catholic faith” or they have “nothing to do with the Church.” 

I remember a middle-aged patient, Monica, awaiting a major surgery. She told me she had not gone to church for “many years.” I gently responded that I had seen her name on the Roman Catholic list of patients and had come to offer support. She invited me to sit down for conversation. She shared with me the stories about her “strong faith when growing up,” her medical condition and her “fears of the unknown.”  At the end, she asked me to pray for her. She also asked me to visit her again, which I did. When Monica was discharged she told me that her stay at the hospital had offered her a time to reflect on “life and faith in God.”

On another occasion, I encountered a newly admitted elderly man whose name had appeared on the Roman Catholic list. Peter had been admitted for a life-threatening disease. When I introduced myself, Peter responded that he had “nothing to do with the Church.” After a brief conversation, Peter asked me to leave, then invited me to visit again if I had time. I wished him God’s blessings and left but continued to visit Peter. One Sunday morning, Peter, in a wheelchair, and his wife came to join us for Mass in the hospital chapel, which he later wanted to talk about. As his medical condition worsened, at his request I was able to guide him to receive the Sacrament of the Sick. When he died a couple of months after his admission, his grieving wife told me she believed her husband had died peacefully — something that she “had been praying and hoping for.”

Visiting patients without their direct request gives me the opportunity to provide pastoral care to a larger number of patients. I become a bridge between them and the the parish communities with whom they share “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Visiting patients without their direct request can be challenging. I never know what might happen. During such visits, I have at times felt that leaving them alone might be the best idea. Yet our faith tells us that if one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Corinthians 12:26). It is my responsibility to show concern to the patients entrusted to my care so they might experience God’s love. 

I acknowledge that patients come to the hospital at different stages of their faith including those who say they no longer practice our faith.  I am also aware it is my faith, and my actions based on that faith, that may help me to connect with them. As a priest tending the sick, being present can offer patients the hope God is with them. 

The responses of those who say they no longer practice our faith make me reflect on how God can work in their lives through my ministry. By being present to the sick, I accompany them on their spiritual journey of healing. Amid pain and suffering, God’s power through the Holy Spirit rekindles our faith. It is through Jesus’ compassion that the Holy Spirit offers us comfort and consolation on our journey of life.