the priest as chaplain

Today I’ve published another one of my old papers. As part of my seminary education, I completed a summer internship at Regions Hospital in 1995, serving as a chaplain alongside other seminary candidates from various denominations. Among other things, it gave me a chance to reflect on priestly identity and the role of the priest in pastoral care:

Theological Integration Paper

My reflections were centered around C.S. Lewis’ essay, The Weight of Glory, so it seems appropriate to publish them on this blog.

NOTE: After a lengthy discernment with various turns, I have reached a decision in the past year to remain a layman rather than pursue what I once considered a call to ordained priesthood in my life.

theological integration paper

It may be possible for each [person] to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another…. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

This quote from C.S. Lewis articulates well the theology that grounds my approach to pastoral care. Coming into the C.P.E. program this summer, I was pretty intimidated by the task before me… the task of ministry, which I see as a call to take up “the burden of my neighbor’s glory.” The reason this was so intimidating for me was that I saw ministry as one-sided—as simply a “work” I would perform on behalf of another person—rather than as a reciprocal effort that would engage both persons in a pilgrimage of love. Yet through my experiences this summer, I have come to understand my ministry instead as a calling forth of the freedom of another person—that is, as an invitation to a person to engage in the experience of faith. I have had patients ask me difficult theological and moral questions—questions of theodicy, health care, change of lifestyle. Sometimes, when the questions are asked, I sense that the person asking is somehow abdicating responsibility for answering these questions themselves. When I have sensed this happening, I have restrained myself from providing a lot of answers, and instead have waited for the individual to articulate their own “theology.” Sometimes I have offered some words based on my own faith, trying to be careful to preface them as such, but many times, I have simply facilitated the theological engagement of the other person. At times this has required a painful patience on my part, as I have a strong sense of the objectivity of many of my convictions, yet I have come to see it as a necessary patience. I want to be an advocate for the development of personal faith, and for faith to be personal, it must engage people at the level of their freedom, at the innermost core of their being where they confront the ultimate questions of life. This is part of my commitment to carrying out pastoral care: “One of the basic objectives of… renewed and intensified pastoral action [for and with the sick and the suffering]… is an attitude which looks upon the sick person, the bearer of a handicap, or the suffering individual, not simply as an object of the Church’s love and service, but as an active and responsible participant in the work of evangelization and salvation” (Christifidelis Laici, 54). I believe that allowing patients to grapple with their own faith commitment is part of this pastoral attitude.

However, there has been an inner tension in my ministry in this regard; there is a question that has continually haunted me as I have gone about my pastoral care in the hospital this summer: What, then, does it mean for me to be a pastor—that is, a shepherd? Am I simply a theologically trained sheep walking alongside other sheep? Or will there be something specific and unique that ordination will bestow upon my ministry? In other words, what specifically will pastoral care mean for me one day as an ordained priest?

In order to answer these questions, I have turned to the documents of the Church on priesthood as a way of grounding my own understanding of pastoral identity. In particular, I have been reading an exhortation on the formation of priests that has recently been written by John Paul II. The Pope speaks of the need “to initiate the candidate [for priesthood] into the sensitivity of being a shepherd, in the conscious and mature assumption of his responsibilities, in the interior habit of evaluating problems and establishing priorities and looking for solutions on the basis of honest motivations of faith and according to the theological demands inherent in pastoral work” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 58). My desire to get a sense of what it means to be a shepherd—to “bear the weight of my neighbour’s glory” in a specific way as an ordained priest—is one of the reasons why I decided to wear clerics during my summer internship.

So what does wearing clerics mean to me in my ministry now, at a time when I am not yet an ordained priest? For one thing, the clerical collar serves as a reminder of the responsibility I have to form my pastoral identity according to the mind and heart of the Church. This does not imply a slavish submission to some abstract teaching, but rather an assimilation of the rich theology of priestly ministry:

The exercise of his ministry deeply involves the priest himself as a conscious, free and responsible person. The bond with Jesus Christ assured by consecration and configuration to him in the sacrament of orders gives rise to and requires in the priest the further bond which comes from his ‘intention,’ that is, from a conscious and free choice to do in his ministerial activities what the Church intends to do. This bond tends by its very nature to become as extensive and profound as possible, affecting one’s way of thinking, feeling and life itself: in other words, creating a series of moral and spiritual ‘dispositions’ which correspond to the ministerial actions performed by the priest. (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 25)

Putting on the collar every morning serves to remind me of the ministry for which I am preparing, a ministry which the Church describes as a configuration to Christ. This configuration makes the priest a representative of Christ in much the same manner as an icon (cf. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Women, 11; Fr. John Saward, “The Priest as Icon,” Priest, November 1994). In the words of the Pope, “the priest is a living and transparent image of Christ the priest.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 12)

How does the collar serve to manifest this image? I am not certain what—if anything—the Church believes in this regard, but in my own mind, I have developed a “theology of the collar” this summer during my internship. For me, the collar is like a ring (now an engagement ring; one day a wedding ring) that testifies to the spousal relationship that the priest has to the Church. In essence, the priest “marries” the Church at ordination: “The gift of self, which is the source and synthesis of pastoral charity, is directed toward the Church…. The priest, who welcomes the call to ministry, is in a position to make this a loving choice, as a result of which the Church and souls become his first interest, and with this concrete spirituality he becomes capable of loving the universal Church and that part of it entrusted to him with the deep love of a husband for his wife.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 23)

What can serve as the source of this love for the Church? I believe it can come only from a love for Christ, a love that I have noticed slowly developing in my life as I have walked the path toward a vocation. Having experienced Christ’s love, I desire to reciprocate it:

The primary point of reference of the priest’s charity is Jesus Christ himself. Only in loving and serving Christ the head and spouse will charity become a source, criterion, measure and impetus for the priest’s love and service to the Church, the body and spouse of Christ…. This was the explicit and programmatic teaching of Jesus when he entrusted to Peter the ministry of shepherding the flock only after his threefold affirmation of love, indeed only after he had expressed a preferential love: “He said to him the third time, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me?’ Peter. ..said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21:17) (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 23)

For me, wearing the collar is a symbol of my desire to love Christ through a particular form of service to his Church. In wearing the collar, I have a visible reminder of the dedication of my whole life to her service through the vows of poverty, celibate chastity, and obedience. [When I speak of dedication to the “Church,” however, I do not mean that I limit my ministry to those who have been baptized as Christians.] The collar also represents to me the authority of the priest, authority understood as service: “The authority of Jesus Christ as head coincides.., with his service, with his gift, with his total, humble and loving dedication on behalf of the Church…. The spiritual existence of every priest receives its life and inspiration from exactly this type of authority.” (Pastores Dabo Vobis, 21) It is this sort of pastoral authority—marked by “no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption”—that I pray I will be able one day to exercise as an ordained priest.

verbatim #6

Chaplain: Clayton Emmer
Date of Visit: Thursday, July 20, 1995
Length of visit: 25 minutes

I. Known Facts
Before visiting with the patient, I had quite a bit of information per a conversation with his mother on Monday (see part II).

II. Plan for the Visit
On Monday, I had spent an hour talking to Leslie, the mother of the patient, in the surgery waiting area. She told me that her 20-year-old son Todd had run over his feet with a lawn mower that afternoon. She had been at work at the time, but her brother (who was visiting from out of town) was at the house and was able to call 911 for help. Her brother was also in the surgery waiting room, asleep from medication that he was on for some condition that was slowly eating away at his fingers.

Leslie told me that her son had been involved in a car accident before – with some brain injury – and also had had a bout with cancer. She said that Todd’s brain injury meant that he could not follow a chain of instructions; he could only process one idea at a time. Because of this, he required almost constant supervision.

Leslie also shared quite a bit about herself. She was divorced; according to her, her husband wanted nothing to do with Todd, which explained why he wasn’t coming to the hospital after Todd’s accident. Leslie said she worked in a well-known local chemical dependency treatment center as a counselor. Two of her co-workers there were Catholic priests – one an ex-priest, one still in ministry. She described both as homosexuals. The ex-priest was pretty quiet about this, while the one still in ministry was actively homosexual. Leslie felt that the active priest was living hypocritically, and said that she had told him so; she didn’t see how he could reconcile his religious affiliation with his behavior. As for herself, she was raised Catholic but had since left the Catholic Church for a Protestant denomination. She spoke of her own orientation as a lesbian, and said she was currently living with a female partner. We had a discussion about the sense of alienation experienced by homosexuals in the Catholic Church and about ministry in general. Leslie voiced an interest in chaplaincy and said that she felt somewhat constricted in what she can talk about with her clients by her role as a dependency counselor.

Leslie was genuinely concerned about her son, and wanted to pray for him with me. Near the end of my visit, the doctor came in and confirmed that the medical team had removed some of Todd’s toes. Leslie had known that this was part of the potential plan and she seemed to handle the news pretty well.

Although Leslie seemed to appreciate my visit, she said that the minister from her congregation would be stopping by to visit Todd, so I made the determination then that I would probably not follow up with the patient.

Todd showed up on my patient census for 6 South on Tuesday. During the next couple of days, I noticed that every time I went by his room I could see Todd’s mother sitting by his bedside. I decided that, at some point, I wanted to go in and meet the patient. I felt that conversation might be difficult because of his brain injury, but I wanted to make some attempt at communication. From my conversation with his mother, I knew that there was an issue about the patient’s ability to walk after the operation: Would he need crutches? With his brain disability, would recovery be more difficult? I also wondered if there might be some resentment about his father’s absence.

III. Observations
On Thursday afternoon, as I walked by the room, I decided to go in and meet Todd. When Leslie saw me enter the room, she called to me from across the room in a friendly, welcoming way, so I felt very comfortable going over to meet Todd. The curtain was pulled partially around Todd’s bed, so I couldn’t see Todd until I came right up to the bed. Todd’s bed was on the right side of the room by the window. There were two other patients in the room – both on the left side of the room – divided from each other by a curtain. The one nearest the door seemed to be somewhat alert, while the one by the window was asleep.

As I approached the foot of the bed, I could see Todd lying down with his leg raised slightly (by the way the mattress had been adjusted electronically). Todd was slight in build and had fairly short straight brown hair. He seemed pretty alert, although he didn’t face me directly but looked off to the side as if to avoid looking at me directly. I thought maybe he was positioned in a way that made him more comfortable physically, but I wasn’t sure. As I stood at the foot of the bed, Leslie stood up from her chair next to the bed and we began to talk.

IV. The Verbatim Visit
C=chaplain; T=Todd; L=Leslie

Ll (smiling) Hello, chaplain. How are you?

Cl I’m doing pretty well. And you?

L2 Oh, pretty good. (standing up) This is Todd.

C2 Hi, Todd. I’m Clayton, the chaplain. I talked to your mom for a while the other day while you were in surgery. How are you doing?

Tl Okay.

C3 What have you been up to? Have you been resting, or…

T2 Some.

L3 He stayed up until 2 a.m. this morning with Walter (pointing to the bed of the other alert patient) just catching up with each other. Solving the world’s problems.

C4 Oh, really?

L4 Yeah.

T3 (quickly, and all slurred together) Whydoyouwanttobeapriest?

C5 (trying to clarify his question; I’m a bit surprised at this question from out of the blue) Why?

T4 Yeah, why a priest?

L5 (moving aside and offering her seat) Here, sit down. I’ll be back in a bit. You guys have a nice visit.

C6 (sitting down) Okay.

Leslie leaves the room.

C7 Well, that’s a good question. I guess I probably started to think about being a priest when I was in college. While I was there, I got to know some priests and saw them in ministry. They seemed to have a lot of joy and satisfaction in their ministry, and so I started to think that ministry as a priest might be kind of cool.

T5 (shifting himself in his bed as if to show me the bandages on his feet) They operated on my feet the other day.

C8 Yeah. Are you in a lot of pain?

T6 No. (pointing at one of the sacks of liquid which are being fed to him intravenously) They’ve got me on painkillers.

Long pause.

C9 So, what have you been doing with all of your time here in the hospital? Do you like to read? (pause) Or watch TV?

T7 Yeah, sometimes.

C10 I could bring you a Bible if that’s something you’d be interested in reading. There are also some little devotional magazines in the chapel I could bring up.

T8 No. I don’t believe in God.

C11 Oh. Why is that?

T9 Because if God existed how could he allow so much suffering in the world?

C12 Yeah, that’s a good question.

T10 I don’t think that if there was a God he would allow so much suffering to happen to people.

C13 Because God would be all-good and all-powerful.

T11 Yeah.

C14 Yeah, that’s a difficult question.

Somewhere around this point in the conversation, I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, if he could be anything he wanted to be. He said: a firefighter.

C15 What kind of things do you like to do when you’re at home? Do you have any hobbies?

T12 Not really. It’s just boring at home.

C16 Have you ever had any collections?

T13 No.

C17 How about music? Do you like music?

T14 Yeah. I used to play the saxophone.

C18 Really? That’s great. (pause) But you don’t play anymore?

T15 No.

C19 How come?

T16 My dad pawned off my saxophone a few years back.

C20 Oh. That’s too bad.

Long pause.

C21 Is there any other instrument you play?

T16 No.

C22 I don’t play any instruments. I took some piano lessons when I was growing up, but I didn’t learn too much. I would like to play an instrument someday.

T17 Yeah.

Long pause.

C23 You said earlier that you didn’t think God existed because of the fact that there is so much suffering in the world. I was just wondering if it would be possible that God does exist and is all-good and all-powerful, but that we just can’t understand the meaning of suffering because we can’t see things as God sees them.

T18 But how could he allow so much pain and suffering? I mean look at all of the suffering that takes place all the time… the shootings, the crime… and look at the Oklahoma City bombing. All of those innocent people getting hurt by those evil people. I just don’t see how God could make such evil people.

C24 You’ve brought up a really difficult question. Do you want to know how I look at this question?

T19 Okay.

C25 I think that when God made us, he gave us free will to do what we want. And some people have chosen to use their will in ways that are evil and harmful. You see, God left us free because he loved us and wanted us to have choices. He didn’t want to just create a world of robots.

T20 But why does there have to be evil? It just doesn’t make sense. If God existed how could he allow so much evil. There are so many evil people out there doing evil things. There’s just no way God could exist.


C26 But think about this. There are some people out there who are doing a lot of really good things. It’s just that we don’t tend to hear so much about them. The TV news and the newspapers tend to tell us about all of the bad things that happen because they are often more sensational. So we don’t get to hear much about the good things that are going on.

T21 Yeah, that’s true.

C27 You know, if God doesn’t exist then good people don’t really make any sense either.

T22 I just don’t understand why there’s so much evil.

C28 Yeah. It’s hard to understand.


C29 Earlier you said you wanted to be a firefighter. It sounds like you would like to make a difference in the world, for the better.

T23 I guess I like firefighting because it’s exciting.

Some other dialogue followed, which I don’t exactly remember. Soon, Leslie re-enters the room and walks over to the bedside.

L6 I’m back. So, how are you guys doing?

I stand up.

C30 Good We just had a pretty deep philosophical discussion. He asks a lot of really good questions.

L7 Yeah, he’s quite a bright guy. We’re proud of him.

C31 He’s a deep thinker.

L8 Yeah.

I sense that she wants to sit down, so I move over to the other side of the bed so that she can get around me. I think it’s probably a good time to leave.

C32 Well, Todd, I enjoyed talking to you. Keep asking those questions.

T24 Yeah.

L9 Thanks for stopping by.

C33 (To both Leslie and Todd) My pleasure. Take care.

I leave the room.

V. Evaluation
A. The Patient (Todd)

1. Psychological: Todd seemed very reflective and curious. He seemed to welcome my presence and really wanted to engage with me. I didn’t interpret the long pauses as reluctance, but as him thinking things through. Todd didn’t look directly at me much of the time, but the way he was speaking with me seemed to indicate that he wanted to talk.

2. Sociological: Todd’s family situation is a difficult one. The divorce of his parents was probably very difficult for him. From his comment about the saxophone, I sensed that he has some real anger at this dad. Life has been difficult for Todd and has involved a lot of suffering for him (cancer, the car accident, and now this accident with the lawn mower). These sufferings may be the cause of his questions about the co-existence of God and suffering, although I never heard him personalize the discussion about suffering.

As far as his social connections go, I didn’t have a sense of whether he had some friends his age or not. I wondered if his mental condition had been a source of isolation for him. Although I didn’t necessarily sense that Todd was lonely, I could see how loneliness might be part of his experience.

3. Spiritual:
Providence: Todd’s struggle with the question of theodicy indicated he had definite notions of who God would be if God existed (all-good, all-powerful) (cf. T10 & T11).

Faith: At the very least, Todd seemed intrigued by the notion of belief. I had the sense Todd wanted to believe in God. Otherwise, I’m not sure why he would have been asking about my desire to be a priest (T3) or why he would be asking the difficult questions about God and suffering. I think that people who want to avoid the question of belief altogether do not allow themselves to ask these questions at all.

Grace/Gratitude: Todd seemed to have an awareness or appreciation for those people in the world who are bringing about good (T21).

Repentance: It was not clear to me whether repentance was something within Todd’s spiritual perspective. His world seems pretty dualistic, and I’m not sure if there’s room for much free will in his theology. When I brought up free will, he did seem to acknowledge my point (T20), but he didn’t pursue it on his own.

Communion/Community: Todd seemed to have a sense of belonging to a larger community, an identification with humanity at large in its suffering (T18).I thought it was significant that he wasn’t talking about his own pain, but rather the pain of all those who suffer in the world. Perhaps this was just intellectualizing that kept things comfortably impersonal, but I sensed that Todd was sincere in his concern for the wider community.

4. Ethical considerations: The question that Todd’s perspective begs is this: If there is evil in the world, what is his response? Can he respond to evil with good? What are the moral questions facing him in light of his worldview? Is there any personal responsibility on his part? This is what I was trying to get at with my reference to his interest in firefighting (C29).

B. My Ministry
I felt like the questions I asked were thought-provoking and would give him things to think about later. I sensed Todd to be reflective, and I just wanted to give him some food for thought. I wish, however, that I had asked him more about his dad, and about what it meant when he said it was boring at home. I guess I was more interested in the explicitly theological issues at hand. I wonder if this was really the best thing for Todd.

C. The Chaplain
I enjoyed this visit very much. I love to talk about philosophical and spiritual issues, and I was excited to see that Todd seemed to have the same interest. I became pretty engrossed in the discussion we were having. I was surprised to find how challenging discussion of theodicy is. I guess the full impact of the problem had never really settled in me before; there is something so different about all of the theological discussion in books and the actual question. I think Todd helped me to realize how serious the questions of theodicy are. At times, I was pulling out my textbook answers (cf. C23, C25), yet I think I acknowledged how difficult the questions are and affirmed him in his questioning.

VI. Supervision
Several questions for individual supervision:

  • What about the issue of his father and life at home? Would it have been better to pursue those topics?
  • Did I really need to leave when I did? Am I giving in to my own interpretations without verbalizing them so that they can receive feedback/correction?
  • Along those lines: What about my decision after my previous discussion with the mother to not visit the patient? Was that a good assessment? On what basis did I make that assessment?