“Every effort should be made to have priests assigned to
hospitals and health care institutions to celebrate the Eucharist.”
— Ethical and Religious Directives
I teach nursing at an evangelical Protestant college, but I have the privilege of bringing my students to a Catholic hospital for their acute care clinicals. On their orientation day, they arrive at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center wide-eyed and spiffy in their uniforms; very nervous, but also very excited. After an initial semester of providing patient care in a nursing home, they intuitively recognize that moving on to the hospital is both a quantitative and qualitative leap. There will be much more to learn and experience in the acute care environment, and it’s bound to be more complex and challenging.
With that in mind, it stands to reason that they might express surprise at our first stop on the orientation tour: the hospital’s chapel. “You might think that the E.R. or the O.R. or even the maternity unit is the center of this place,” I tell them. “That might be true elsewhere, but not here. This is a Catholic hospital, and so the chapel is its center, its heart. Everything that goes on throughout the rest of the building – all the surgeries and patient care, everything – leads up to and away from what goes on in this chapel. In other words, it leads up to and away from Jesus.”
What I don’t tell them is that I consider the hospital’s chapel a special perk of my job as a clinical instructor – and, frankly, a tremendous benefit to them as well. “Many hospitals have a chapel,” noted Bishop Robert F. Vasa at a dedication ceremony some years ago, “but only Catholic hospitals have a chapel with a Presence.” As a nursing instructor, I get to accompany students as they practice caring for others in the name of Jesus, but doing so at SJRMC allows for that practice to take place in close physical proximity to his Eucharistic presence. In a sense, whether acknowledged by the students or not, our efforts on behalf of the patients are a concrete extension of that presence, almost like a diffusion throughout the hospital of his healing touch.
The chapel at SJRMC is also important to me because it has long been a destination for my family for Mass – even before I became a health care worker. When I was in nursing school, and my wife was homeschooling our young children, we’d all frequently meet at the old St. Joe hospital for the 2 p.m. Mass. It was an odd time – scheduled, no doubt, for the convenience of the facility’s nurses and other shift workers – but it was the best local option for us to come together for prayer and Eucharist during the week.
Besides, it was always pleasure to see Fr. Henry at St. Joe – at the time the only priest assigned to the med center and the evening shift chaplain. Since we were regulars at SJRMC’s tiny, homey chapel week after week, Fr. Henry got to see our family expand and grow up. To this day, he remembers all my kids’ names, and he’ll ask about them each in turn when I see him: “How’s Margaret doing now?” he’ll ask for instance. “Where is she in school? And how’s Nicholas?” – my son with Down’s. Fr. Henry has a special affection for Nicky, which is evident at the Holy Week Chrism Mass most years. Nick will wait in the back of church as all the priests process in, and when he spots Fr. Henry, he’ll break into a grin and extend his arm for a fist bump.
St. Joseph Medical Center moved to a brand-new building about nine years ago, and with the move came a change in Mass times. There’s still a 2 p.m. Sunday Mass (along with one at 10 a.m.), but Monday through Friday it’s now at noon. That combined with the new hospital’s further distance from our home has meant that my family gets to see Fr. Henry must less often. For me, though, the med center is still pretty accessible – right up the street from where I teach – and I’m often there anyway to make clinical assignments or check on students.
Yet it’s not only convenience that draws me to SJRMC’s chapel. There’s also a special sense of community there. There’s a regular crowd from the community, just like at parish weekday Masses, but you also get to kneel and pray next to doctors, nurses, aides, and other members of the facility’s staff. Sometimes you even get to worship with patients who’ve come down from their rooms or who are preparing for admission for a procedure or test. There’s something very fitting about this given what Pope Francis has taught us about the Church being a field hospital. Plus, Christ made it clear that we, his followers, are called to care for him in the guise of the ill and vulnerable, and there’s special power in offering our Mass intentions in the very place where such care is occurring – and among those who are themselves providing it.
“I pray that those who do not yet know Christ may find Him in that peaceful little chapel,” said Bishop Vasa of the hospital oratory he dedicated, “where He who is the Divine Physician waits.” He waits there as well for we who do know him, and by meeting him there amid those seeking his healing, along with those who serve as his instruments, we too get to participate in the amplification and diffusion of the balm of his Real Presence.