Catholic hospital chaplains meet for first-ever national hui

Senior Catholic Hospital Chaplain Tony Lenton reports on the work of New Zealand’s Catholic hospital chaplains in our major public hospitals for patients, families and hospital staff, and of the recent national hui-conference they held in Auckland.

Catholic hospital chaplains nationwide are listed by city and region on this NZCBC chaplaincy page.

Photo above: At the conference, from left: Myrine McMahon (Locum Hospital Chaplain North Shore Hospital), Fr Maurice Ford (Chaplain, Middlemore Hospital), Deacon Mark Rivalland (North Shore Hospital) and Kheng Boon Tan (Auckland City Hospital)

By Senior Hospital Chaplain Tony Lenton

Catholic chaplains work in hospitals throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, spending time with people who are unwell, families and staff. They need to be resilient, but they need support themselves, to be encouraged and to have their inner strength refreshed. With that in mind, our chaplains gathered at the Franciscan Friary in Auckland in late February for our first-ever conference as a Catholic group.

The peaceful grounds of the St Francis Retreat Centre in Hillsborough have been bathed in the prayer of many retreatants over the years, providing the perfect setting for reflection and fellowship.

Typically, chaplains have a low profile until you meet them, either as a patient or when accompanying a loved one who is being diagnosed and treated in the hospital.

There are some 30 Catholic hospital chaplains throughout the motu, some full-time but most part-time. We are present in all major public hospitals. We spend time with those who are unwell, their families and staff. Chaplaincy teams are typically available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Chaplains operate within the Church’s God-given mandate to accompany the vulnerable:
• Matthew 25:40: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
• James 5:14: “Is anyone among you ill? Let them summon the elders of the church, and they should pray for them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord”.

As part of the Church’s witness to the whole community, chaplains will minister to anyone who needs them, without judgement or reserve. We spend time in places where time is in short supply. We do this because we believe each person is made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and therefore each has an intrinsic dignity deserving of our ministry of presence and accompaniment. Chaplains support families in their concern and grief for their loved ones, and from time to time offer moral support to hard-working hospital staff. On occasion we are a surrogate family for the socially isolated and alone.

Our Catholic bishops are part of the Interchurch Council for Hospital Chaplaincy (ICHC), which is contracted by Te Whatu Ora-Health New Zealand to provide chaplaincy services in public hospitals. Dioceses employ Catholic chaplains, who operate in collaboration with the ICHC ecumenical chaplaincy teams.

Chaplains must be able to cope with a wide range of encounters with patients, ranging from gentle conversation through to ministry and ritual to those who are dying, and careful supportive presence to those in mental distress. We hear many sad stories of loss and disappointment. We meet many patients who had no idea that the symptoms that brought them to hospital that day would lead to a life-changing or, in some cases, life-limiting, prognosis. We support those impacted by an accidental death, suicide and those mentally unwell.

Chaplains need to be people of resilience, based on a strong relationship with God both personally and as expressed in their faith. They must be humble but honest in their self-belief. They must be knowledgeable about matters of faith and skilled conversationalists who are good listeners.

Chaplains therefore need support themselves, to be encouraged and to have their inner strength refreshed. Many report that sometimes they feel like “impostors” concerned about their preparedness in the face of such responsibility. This feeling arises from authentic self-reflection and is common among those with similar roles. It is a sign of their humility and a treasure.

One morning a thought rose up: “Build it and they will come.” And then the idea supported by potential participants slowly took shape, and our bishops gave permission to go ahead. And so that is why we had our conference; we built it, and we came. Catholic chaplaincy colleagues who work for ICHC also joined us.

To begin, on Thursday afternoon, Manuel Beazley, Auckland Diocese Vicar for Māori, led us in a wonderfully inclusive mihi whakatau (a non-marae welcome similar to a pōwhiri) and we received words of encouragement and aspiration from Barry Fisk, the ICHC Chief Executive, and (by video) from Erica Cohen Moore, Chief Executive of the National Association of Catholic Chaplains in the USA. Tauranga Hospital chaplain Leanne Brooks was our MC and set a light (and right) tone offering Crunchie bars as a metaphor and a sweet reality for a day in the life of a chaplain: “when it comes to the crunch.”

Our first speaker was Mercy Hospital Dunedin chaplain Fr Mark Chamberlain, who encouraged deep spiritual awareness, renewal in the Spirit, and always seeking the face of Jesus. On the Friday our day began with Mass celebrated by Fr Maurice Ford, long serving priest-chaplain at Middlemore Hospital. Then ICHC Regional Manager Rev Joe Gray celebrated the positive dimensions of the collaboration of Catholic and non-Catholic chaplains followed by Tauranga ecumenical chaplain Rev Matiu Best of Ngāpuhi and Anglican diocese Te Pihopatanga o Te Manawa o Te Wheke, who offered wisdom for non-Māori Chaplains about understanding the Treaty of Waitangi and being themselves at the bedside when praying with Māori patients. Dr John Kleinsman, theologian and Director of the Catholic Bishops’ Nathaniel Centre for Bioethics, gave a masterful overview of current Church teaching on recent developments in theology as they applied to pastoral accompaniment matters (including our recent bishops’ statement Te Kahu o te Ora: A Consistent Ethic of Life) and words from Pope Francis. We are grateful that that in addition to speaking with us, our speakers also stayed and spent time with us chatting and encouraging.

After an open session run by the chaplains themselves, Bishop of Auckland Steve Lowe prayed Mass with us on Saturday morning and on behalf of all the bishops, thanked the chaplains for their mahi before we made our way home.

As with most conferences, there was ample free time during which attendees ministered to each other in conversation and fellowship. Chaplains were assigned into groups to encourage new friendships and as a way of processing (wananga) what was presented. Many had not met each other before and now feel less alone knowing that, from Invercargill to Whangarei, their Catholic colleagues are ministering in the same kaupapa.

The importance and success of the time together is well summarised by one of the many messages received after the Conference: “Thank you very much for organising and guiding an exceptional Catholic Hospital Chaplains’ Conference. I appreciated the location, the size of the gathering, the speakers, the pace and format, and especially the emphasis on the heart work of Chaplaincy and tending to those who felt vulnerable and uncertain. People shared with me how acknowledged and supportive they felt, especially after Mark Chamberlain’s talk. Today as I saw patients, I noticed how my confidence in, and appreciation for, my role had increased due to the content and interactions of the conference. Thanks be to God.”

• Catholic hospital chaplains nationwide are listed by city and region on this NZCBC chaplaincy page.