Fr. Yaw Acheampong, priest-chaplain at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, says experiencing the incarnate God in a hospital community at Christmas is a great gift. Photo by Bill Wade

Spiritual side of Christmas evident in hospital setting

By  Fr. Yaw Acheampong, Catholic Register Special
  • December 25, 2012

TORONTO - As a priest-chaplain at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital, people often want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas in a hospital community.

As in any faith community, such as a parish, at the start of Advent there is an atmosphere of anticipation and excitement within our hospital community. The staff begin to decorate their work stations and I notice an increase in attendance at daily Mass.

As Christmas day approaches, the hospital tries to send patients whose health conditions are manageable home so they can celebrate with family and friends. But many patients will have to remain for Christmas and they are joined by the hospital workers and support teams who provide the care.

On Christmas day, as I go to work I really do wonder what is going to happen on this joyful day in a community where there is much pain and sorrow. Over the years I’ve learned that many things come into play which are uniquely associated with Christmas. Apart from saying Mass, I bring Holy Communion to those who have requested it. I also visit with patients to wish them a Merry Christmas as a means of connecting with each of them.

During these visits, some patients request that I bring them a Bible or rosary — sometimes both. Often I find it difficult to support patients in these circumstances, but I believe that being present enables them to identify what is meaningful to them on this special day.

I recall a Christmas visit with a very ill elderly patient whose name had appeared on the Roman Catholic census as a new patient. The patient, speaking in a very soft and shaky voice, shared with me that he had been wondering if he had even been baptized. He said that no one in his family knew. He was worried about this and requested that I baptize him, which I did.

The most challenging part of my ministry is confronting the death of a patient, even much more so on a Christmas day. In an instant, what was to be a merry and joyous day can turn into a day of sorrow.

I remember being called one Christmas to visit with the family of a patient who had just died. On arrival I saw a large number of family members in mourning around the bed of the deceased. I offered them my condolences and, together with the family, I celebrated the Prayers for the Dead and stayed to comfort them.

Although the pastoral care I provide on Christmas is no different from other days, what is different is the spiritual activity that occurs in people’s lives that day. On a typical Christmas in most homes, people engage in many types of activities as part of the celebration. But inthe hospital, celebrations are more simple and the hospital community tries to focus more on the spiritual significance of the day. For example, during my visits patients express anxiety, fear and disappointment at having to spend Christmas in the hospital, but I am also amazed to hear them tell me what Christmas means to them. As there is no room for the many usual activities, we find room for the living God who can come to us in unexpected ways.

At the end of the day, as I reflect on the day’s events and the impact my ministry has had on me, patients, families and staff, I feel a deep sense of inspiration and joy. Being present to the hospital community on Christmas provides support, comfort and peace. In this spirit of Christmas, there is a great feeling of togetherness with the wider community of faith, the Church.

As we join our brothers and sisters beyond the hospital walls in celebrating the birth of our Saviour, to us there is certainly a sense of renewal of our faith and the strengthening of our hope in the fulfilment of the promise that God has made: to come and live among us in His incarnate Son Jesus Christ. Thus, regardless of what happens on Christmas in the hospital, we believe that our God stands by our side and is offering His support and encouragement.

In our encounter with our God, He removes all the darkness of sadness and pain in our midst and surrounds us with the light of His compassion, peace and healing. Experiencing this presence of the incarnate God in the hospital community transcends our circumstances: it becomes a great gift that we share with each other on this special day.

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

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