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What I Did in the Summer ... Hospital Chaplaincy

Sunday, November 04, 2012
Each year, student Dominicans do a summer Pastoral Placement, usually of around a month, and typically based in one of the other priories in our Province, sometimes sharing in the specialist ministry of one our friars. This summer I was based at the London Priory, and, along with some parish and local primary school experience, I spent most of my time engaged in hospital chaplaincy. I was working with Peter Harries OP who is the lead chaplain at University College London Hospital, and alongside the rest of the Catholic and ecumenical teams.

I spent my time visiting patients and reflecting on these visits with Peter and, to some extent, the other chaplains. It proved to be a varied and very rich experience. You never know as you go from bed to bed what situation you will encounter: a person who has just been told they are going home; one who has been told there is little or no chance of them ever going home; those whose spirits are up, those who are struggling; families and friends at bedsides who also need attention. Besides that, the hospital staff are worthy of attention. As well as all manner of sickness, and some recoveries, I was involved in about ten cases involving deaths.

Across this range of people and situations, I met some with a steady faith, some whose faith was ‘heroic’, some struggling, some questioning, some angry. Some people were obviously growing and some perhaps risked diminishing in grace. Many had more questions about life and God than they usually had, and a lot of people do, in effect, engage in some sort of re-evaluation of their life faced with illness or imminent death. All of this was true of the sick and of their carers. It was also moving how people without explicit faith often thought and acted in what I can only call a very graced way.

What did I learn? It needs wisdom and discernment to know when and what to speak, to pray or when to be quiet. Though an effective chaplain establishes very real human links, I was not there as family or long-established friend. I was there precisely as a chaplain, to bring my faith, hope and love to bear on their situations, so that Christ could minister to them. Although I committed my energy, gifts, personality and time I was aware that the real work was that of Christ, often independently of me, sometimes in spite of me, if sometimes through me. For that reason, I was glad to go and pray in the chapel between sessions and to participate in Mass every day. My own experience of difficulty in life helped. It was by drawing on my own experience of encountering God who has been, and is, present in my own brokenness, sustaining me, that I was ‘able to help others with the help with which Christ had helped me’ (cf 2 Cor 1:3-4). That is a lesson for the future and for other forms of preaching the gospel as well.

Andrew Brookes OP


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