Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 68(3) August 2018

Building a Culture of Life: The Role of the Catholic Chaplain

by Father John-Paul Lyttle
Catholic Chaplain to the Royal Berkshire NHS Hospital Trust

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience."- Fr Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

semper idemIn this quote the French Jesuit philosopher playfully em­phasised the importance of a person’s spiritual life. For good healthcare to be holistic (ie to care for the ‘whole’), it surely needs to care for the physical, psychological as well as the spiritual well-being of the patient.

As the hospital’s chaplain, my role is to help care for the spiritual needs of those in the hospital. I am a Catholic priest so my role then is to be an alter Christus, to be an­other Christ, walking the hospital corridors spiritually supporting the patients and even the staff.

How do I do this? I pray for all those who work in the hospital and their patients when I offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and pray the Divine Office. When I visit the sick I remind them that they are children of God with an inherent dignity as such, for we believe that life is sacred from conception to natural death. Ultimately I have the privilege of administering the Sacraments of the Church. Through these means then I help to care for the souls of those in the hospital.

Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you! -1 Peter 3:15

Despite being in this role now for some time, I remain no less in awe at witnessing when life is drawing to an end than when I started. After sometimes many weeks of journeying through the profound human experience of sickness and suffering, and the medical options having been exhausted, for the patient and their family it often seems as though hope too is apparently coming to an end. Without negating the profound pain the family have ex­perienced and loss they will soon go through, it is nonetheless the case, that death is not the end.

I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.  -Philippians 4:13

I was recently phoned in the early hours of the morning to ICU. As I arrived, I saw a distraught family and on seeing me, they all respectfully moved aside so I could get to the patient. I spoke to the man telling him who I was and told him that Christ was very near and would touch his life. I assured him there was nothing to be afraid of any more. Then I administered the Apostolic Pardon, which is a beautiful gift to the Church by which the priest grants a full remission of sins, after which I gave the man the Sacrament of the Sick, his ‘last rites’. I then prayed the Prayers of Commendation and told the patient that he could go to God’s Kingdom in peace.

After this I led the family in prayer around his bedside and then explained to them what I had done. As Catholics we pray for a ‘happy’ death, however this is a seemingly inappropriate word at such a time. What we mean by this though is that we hope that the person receives the Sacraments of the Church, is surrounded by their loved ones and goes forth in peace. Before I got to the front door of the hospital I found out that the man had died.

This is an example of how the Catholic chaplain can promote a culture of life: caring for, valuing and loving life. Recently I was involved in a discussion about whether the Catholic chaplain to a hospital should wear his clerical collar. In my view, I am a Catholic priest and this is a bold witness in our secular culture: one of sacrifice. Far from being less accessible due to wearing a collar, I am in fact more accessible as I am easily identifiable.