Future seminarians should receive an “absolutely solid formation” in hospital ministry, a priest working with coronavirus patients has said.
Fr. Joe McNerney, a full-time hospital chaplain in the Diocese of Portsmouth, said that before the COVID-19 crisis, healthcare chaplaincy was a sometimes marginalised ministry.
“I think now we are seeing the absolute importance of hospital chaplaincy and how essential a ministry it is — not just during this time, but even when this thing passes — and that people in their seminary training have an absolutely solid foundation as part of their formation,” the priest told CNA.
McNerney, who has worked in hospitals since 1997, said “the whole way of doing chaplaincy has changed enormously” since the pandemic.
Strict preventative measures amid the pandemic force chaplains to focus on being alongside patients “during this very, very distressing time for them,” he explained.
“You think of these patients, and especially the ones in the COVID wards, where all they’re seeing is eyes,” he said. “Everything else is covered up. You realize how much you communicate through your facial expressions who you are — the smile, the twinkle in your eyes. Anything to let them know you care about them as a person. You’re not a clinician just wanting to go in and do something. It’s the same also for the doctors and the nurses. They’re finding that a struggle because it is so hard to communicate.”
McNerney said he was struck by how important it was for patients on coronavirus wards to be able to hold a rosary or small cross throughout their ordeal. He had asked local Catholics to supply rosaries to hospital wards and they had responded “magnificently.”
“It’s a great comfort to have something in your hands that connects you with your Catholic faith, with your Catholic community. It’s very, very important,” he said.
“Unfortunately because of the situation we’re not able to give Communion. If a patient’s ventilated, you can’t. It’s just out of the question. The sacrament of the sick plays an important role. But that abiding presence of something tangible — a rosary or a holding cross — can offer quite a comfort.”
McNerney, who was born in Seattle, Washington, and moved to the U.K. in the early 1980s, noted that at the start of the pandemic it was sometimes difficult to ensure that Catholic chaplains had access to coronavirus patients in the larger hospitals. But he said he had not heard of any cases in which Catholics died from COVID-19 without the sacraments.
“I’m not saying it hasn’t happened. I don’t know. But sometimes you have to be inventive in the way that you minister. You have to be prepared for what I call ‘liturgy on the hoof.’ The Sacrament of the Sick, last rites, are all very important, but you have to adapt the way you do it. It requires a bit of inventiveness,” he said.
He emphasised that hospital trusts saw chaplains as “absolutely essential” and that most misunderstandings were caused by the pressure of responding to a national health emergency.
He said: “I don’t think it’s anything deliberate. My experience is that they are just so, so, so busy. They’re fighting, trying to do everything.”
“In our induction that we do with staff we say it’s good to do a ‘spiritual care assessment’. Well, that’s not high on their list, through no fault of their own. They’re struggling with the physical stuff.”
McNerney’s comments were echoed by Fr. Mark Elliott Smith, who volunteered to serve as a chaplain at NHS Nightingale, London’s coronavirus field hospital.
Asked if the Church was marginalized during the crisis, he said: “Here, at least, absolutely not. In fact, it seems to me that a hallmark of the Nightingale is that the contribution that a chaplain can make is valued, and that spiritual, pastoral, and above all sacramental care is made available.”
“I would add that the Church will clearly want to continue making a vigorous case for its active presence in times like these, but my feeling is that the Church will be knocking at an open door.”
Elliott Smith said that he agreed “to a certain extent” with McNerney’s call for all seminarians to be trained thoroughly in hospital chaplaincy.
“The recent pandemic tells us that you can never know what lies round the corner, but I would be wary of, say, making great adjustments to seminary formation until we have a longer perspective,” he commented.
He said the Church needs to assess the impact of the nationwide lockdown on Mass attendance and then draw conclusions about future priests and their formation.
“Priesthood is an intensely practical life in many ways, but what a priest actually does flows from who he is, and has been formed to be,” he said.
“Of course, it’s good to know what a hospital chaplain actually does, but if the priest has had a solid priestly formation, and has a modicum of common sense, becoming a chaplain should not hold too many terrors.”
Elliott Smith said that while serving coronavirus patients he had drawn comfort from praying the Prayer to St. Michael: “Holy Michael, Archangel, defend us in the day of battle.”
McNerney said he had felt sustained throughout the crisis by a prayer from the Divine Office: “Give us perfect peace, Lord, so that we may delight in serving you all the days of our life, and at the last, with Our Lady’s help, come safely to your presence.”
“It’s a wonderful, wonderful prayer,” he said.