In a hospital setting, each patient has different spiritual needs that a chaplain must prepare for. OSV News photo/Nick Oxford, Reuters

Hospital ministry: Labouring with hope, love

By  Fr. Yaw Acheampong
  • October 6, 2023

On my first day upon returning to work at St. Michael’s Hospital as a hospital priest, I was wondering what things would be like in my role. On the jammed subway, suddenly I found myself reflecting on Jesus’ words — “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest” (Matthew 9:37).

In Matthew’s Gospel, we read that when Jesus encountered so many suffering and helpless people, His compassion moved Him to speak those words to His disciples. Scripture scholars teach that Jesus used a farming analogy to talk about how there were so many people out there to be cared for and to be brought to God.  

God’s harvest comes from different fields. Each field is unique and needs to be nurtured, watered, fed and taken care of so that it may grow and yield the harvest. Just as there are different fields for a harvest, so also there are different ministries of service. For example, my role as a hospital priest is different from that of a parish priest or a priest ministering in a prison, airport or in an outreach community.

So, what is my role as a priest working in a hospital community? I have been sent by the Archdiocese of Toronto to care for the spiritual needs of Roman Catholic patients, the family members, visitors and the hospital staff. Ministry to the sick and the suffering is deeply rooted in Jesus’ own ministry.  

There are different aspects of ministering to the sick. I celebrate the sacraments: presiding at the daily Mass, bringing the Eucharist to patients in their rooms, hearing Confessions and administering the Sacrament of the Sick. I have been called to perform Baptism in emergency situations. One morning I visited a newly admitted patient who was surrounded by his family members. Because of the condition of the patient, the family requested that I celebrate the Sacrament of the Sick. At the end of the visit the family members shared with me that the visit and the celebration of the sacrament meant a lot to them. In the hospital, I have learned that patients and family members find comfort, hope and peace in the celebration of the sacraments.

My pastoral visits do not always involve the celebration of the sacraments or saying prayers. Each person at the hospital has different spiritual needs. Some people want to talk about the state of their faith or about a particular Church teaching. Others want to share their life stories and to express their emotions of hope, fear, frustration, disappointment and also of gratitude. I visited an elderly patient whose main concern was for his two dogs that were being taken care of by some friends. During our conversation, I assured the patient that his good friends would take care of his dogs. At the end of the visit, the patient thanked me for coming to visit him and for lifting up his spirit.  

My visits with patients offer them sacred time and a safe place to talk about their concerns. Listening to the patients and sharing their pain and hope is how I support them on their spiritual journey.

In every ministry there are challenges. I have learned that every day is different in the hospital. The challenges that I encounter are about life and death. Many sick people come to the hospital in pain and suffering and then return home. I also encounter patients who are near the end of their lives. When death occurs, being present for the family and the staff is a significant part of hospital ministry.

I remember being called to visit a family whose loved one had died. During my visit, I led the family in the Rite of Prayers for the Dead. I stayed with the family to offer support and consolation and to share their grief. I also spent a few moments with the staff who cared for the patient. I find that being present at the time of death is always difficult. Yet, it is the time that we also experience the presence of God and His compassion, peace and healing among us.

Every morning, going around the units in the hospital, I notice the generosity and the goodness of the staff to the patients and their visitors. We work together as a team for God’s harvest. As priests, our call to service is to continue the mission, the mission to labour in God’s harvest. We don’t know when the harvest will take place. However, it is through dedicated service that Jesus’ words may be realized. It is through our actions of caring for the needy that we may see God’s love in the abundance of the harvest.

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

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