Fr. Philip Smith writes
Jesus said: ‘I was sick and you visited me ….’ (Matthew 25:36)
The Church, following our Lord’s commands, has always cared for the sick. It has therefore been in healthcare from the beginning. It looked after the sick through the monasteries and religious houses of the Medieval period. The site of St. Walburge’s in Preston was, for example, the site of the leper colony run by the Franciscans in the Middle Ages.
Caring for the sick is holistic, and involves caring for both body and soul. The care of the sick has always included spiritual care and the giving of the sacraments.
Today, the Bishop appoints chaplains to a hospital or equivalent institution. The work of a hospital chaplain is one of the most privileged forms of priestly ministry. The chaplain accompanies the sick and their families at a most difficult time. He is there in the quiet of the night with a family watching and waiting by a bedside; he is with the family of an accident victim in the Critical Care Unit, comforting them in their shock; he is humbled by the touching faith of some in their suffering. He witnesses the return to God of others at this time of decision. He is with the elderly and infirm and with the semi conscious, and sees their lips move in recognition as they listen to familiar prayers. He is there at the joy of birth and shares the pain at the loss of a little premature child. He enters the room saying ‘peace be with you’; he administers the sacraments, and sees the sick person relax in God’s peace; he is there when a person dies, and accompanies them at their last moments when the heartbeat on the recording machine gradually fades away. He prays with and comforts the family, as they commend the soul of the departed to God.
He can be a chaplain in a busy acute hospital. He leads a team of Catholic Volunteers as they meet the constant influx of patients and tend to their spiritual needs; in a hospice where he is part of the team that ease the mental and physical pain of those who are terminally ill; he can be that cheerful and well known visitor to the rehabilitation hospital. He is a listening ear, a quiet companion when there are no words to be said. When needed he is a spiritual counsellor or a person to talk over problems with; an advocate for some yet keeping many confidences; available to all, accepted by staff, witnessing to God’s mercy and care.
He tries to be God’s comforting presence, especially at the time of great need.