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Hospital chaplains meet patient needs at a crucial juncture

We know well how important priestly ministry is to parish life. Yet, priests also are needed as chaplains to serve Catholics and non-Catholics who might not be directly connected to a parish.

According to Susanne Chawszczewski, certification and education coordinator for the National Association of Catholic Chaplains, more than 450 priests nationally serve as chaplains in hospice, mental health, rehabilitation and retirement homes, prisons, military and veteran groups, and hospitals. Most priest chaplains are in hospital ministry.

"Care of the sick and dying is so important. It is important to have ministers available to serve the needs of these patients," said Chawszczewski.

According to the NACC, while parish priests often care for hospital patients, the increased burdens on their time serving parish needs means that the ministry of dedicated, credentialed chaplains is more important than ever.

"While over the last several decades there has been increased lay involvement in chaplaincy work, the role of the priest chaplain has not diminished, but is held with continued importance because of the spiritual and sacramental needs of Catholics who are ministered to in hospitals," said David Lichter, executive director of the NACC. "Just as there is a shortage of priests in parishes, it is also the case that finding qualified, certified priests to serve in hospitals is a critical challenge. While the numbers of priests available to serve as chaplains has diminished, the need has not."

Chaplains typically obtain certification through a process that involves extensive training and preparation, including graduate theological education, clinical training, and normally 1,600 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education.

In the Diocese of Camden, 17 priests serve as hospital chaplains at 15 medical centers in South Jersey: Cooper University Hospital, Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center and Virtua Health (all in Camden), Burdette-Tomlin Cape Regional Medical Center (Cape May Court House), Kennedy Health System (Cherry Hill), South Jersey Healthcare (Elmer), Atlantic Care Regional Medical Center (Mainland Division), Betty Bacharach Rehabilitation Center (Pomona), Memorial Hospital of Salem County, Shore Memorial (Somers Point), Kennedy Health System (Stratford), South Jersey Healthcare Regional Medical Center (Vineland), Virtua West Jersey (Voorhees), Kennedy Health System (Washington Township Division) and Underwood Memorial (Woodbury).

The hospital chaplaincy program is funded through the House of Charity-Bishop's Annual Appeal. Last year, more than $600,000 was disbursed from the Appeal in support of hospital chaplaincy.

"The Church is not apart from the people. We need to care for those in and outside of our parishes, including those who find themselves needing medical care," said Father Steephen Chellan, chaplain to Cooper Medical Center in Camden. "Parishioners' contributions to the House of Charity-Bishop's Annual Appeal are very vital, very essential in order to maintain this important ministry."

The theme of the House of Charity-Bishop's Annual this year is "Disciples on the Journey: Walking the Talk." The Appeal director sees hospital chaplaincy as a vivid reminder of the demands of discipleship.

"When I think of chaplaincy, I cannot help but think of Jesus in the Gospels who reminded his disciples, ‘When I was in prison, you came to me; when I was sick, you visited me.' The Appeal helps support a ministry that Jesus himself called attention to. Our support of the Appeal, then, helps give evidence of our discipleship and commitment to the Gospel," said Mariann Gettings, director of the House of Charity-Bishop's Annual Appeal. "We are grateful for the support, but even more so are the patients that receive the care of our hospital chaplains at such a crucial juncture in their lives."