SAN DIEGO — The ministry of a hospital chaplain is a demanding one. But, according to priests who have accepted such an assignment, it is also deeply rewarding.
Father Danilo Valdepenas, who serves as Catholic chaplain at Sharp Grossmont Hospital and Kaiser Permanente Zion Medical Center, has been involved in this form of ministry for almost four years and has come to love it.
“You cannot dictate the tempo,” he said, contrasting it to the more traditional schedule he had in a previous assignment as an associate pastor.
After spending hours at the hospital, making rounds and visiting those patients who have self-identified as Catholic, the chaplain might arrive home only to receive an emergency telephone call about a patient who needs last rites.
As a result, Father Valdepenas said, a chaplain can feel a bit like “a ping pong ball” at times, bouncing from one place to another at a moment’s notice. He added that a chaplain must be patient and dedicated to succeed in this ministry.
“You have to love your work because, if you are not committed … you cannot last,” Father Valdepenas said. “They wake you up in the middle of the night. There is no excuse, there is no alibi in saying I am tired, I am sick, I cannot make it.”
He said the most rewarding part of being a hospital chaplain is “being with the patient, being with the relatives, being with them in their emotions.”
Father Valdepenas recounted an experience he had about two years ago when he was told in an early morning phone call that a newborn baby was close to death. He went to the hospital, baptized the child and offered words of counsel and comfort to the parents. Months later, the grateful parents sent him a photo of their now healthy baby.
Last year, he received a call to celebrate anointing of the sick for an 18-year-old who had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He continued to visit the patient throughout his stay in the hospital. The young man later contacted Father Valdepenas to express gratitude for the priest’s ministry to him and for “the second life that God has given him.”
“It’s really very different from other kinds of ministry,” Father Valdepenas said of hospital chaplaincy. “You bring the Church closer to them.”
Father David Sereno, the Catholic chaplain at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido and Palomar Health Downtown Campus, has ministered in local hospitals for almost six years.
“Besides helping the families and the patients, which is the mainstay, one of the things I like [about hospital chaplaincy] is that it cuts through parish boundaries,” he said. “People come to the hospital from all different parishes, so you’re getting a cross-section of people, and I enjoy that.”
As a chaplain, Father Sereno said he encounters everything “from birth all the way to old age and death.”
Fortunately, most of the patients he meets will be in the hospital for a short time and then will go on with their lives, he said. But not all of them are so lucky.
Father Sereno recalled the time he received the call that a baby had been born prematurely and the parents sought baptism as soon as possible.
After baptizing the child, Father Sereno remembers placing his pinkie finger into the child’s small hand — and the child grabbed it.
“I was just stunned right there for a minute,” he said. “I was very touched. I’ll never forget that. It was as if the little baby was thanking me for what I had done, baptizing him.”
On another occasion, Father Sereno sat in a hospital room with a family during their loved one’s last moments. The priest had already been at the hospital for several hours that day and had returned when informed about the patient’s imminent death.
“I prayed for this individual until the heart stopped and he passed,” said Father Sereno, who admitted that he was so affected by what he had experienced that he inadvertently ran a red light on his drive home that night.
Father David Leon, who serves as Catholic chaplain at UCSD Medical Center, Alvarado Hospital Medical Center and Good Samaritan Retirement Center, has been performing this ministry for almost a decade.
Noting the large number of Catholic patients, he expressed appreciation for his team of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and the support that they provide in his ministry. He said there are between 85 and 150 Catholic patients at UCSD Medical Center on any given day. Though on call 24 hours a day, five nights a week, he is unable to visit all of these patients. Extraordinary ministers, who are at the hospital every day, visit patients on every floor and alert him to those patients who would like to meet with a priest.
The patients he visits include both practicing Catholics and those who, “for various reasons, haven’t been all that active in the faith,” Father Leon said. “I get the chance to counsel them, help them return to the sacraments.”
“The most rewarding [part of this ministry] is when somebody is choosing to draw closer to the Lord by the return to the sacraments, when you see the patient or family members comforted both through the ministry that I offer plus the work of the extraordinary ministers,” he said.
There are times when patients initially have little interest in spiritual support but, after a week in the hospital, request that the priest pay them a second visit, Father Leon said. Some of these patients have told him that their family and friends never visited but someone from the Church had come almost every day, and that inspired them to begin practicing their faith once again.
Such conversion stories mean a lot to Father Leon.
He told The Southern Cross that, when celebrating Mass at local parishes, he has been approached by people he ministered to in the hospital. They remind him of what he told them about the importance of attending Mass every week and they assure him that they have done so ever since being discharged from the hospital.
“For me, it’s all about conversion,” Father Leon said. “And that’s necessary for all of us, all the time, for me as well. So helping people on the path to draw closer to the Lord at whatever stage in life they’re in, that’s what it’s all about.”
Father John Dolan, the Diocese of San Diego’s Vicar for Clergy, believes that hospital chaplains play an indispensable role in the Local Church.
When Catholics are hospitalized, both the patients themselves and their concerned family members often need more than physical healing.
“They want to have a connection with the Church that has been a part of their life,” said Father Dolan. “That spiritual dimension, but also that relational dimension with the Church, is very important.”
Some of the patients that the chaplains encounter have very little involvement with the Church.
“So, this is Church for them, when the Church reaches out,” Father Dolan said of the chaplains’ ministry.
While chaplains offer “those practical things,” like the Eucharist and the sacraments of reconciliation and anointing of the sick, Father Dolan said, often just “showing up” and being present is “a very important piece of the puzzle.”
Today, 11 Catholic priests in the diocese serve as chaplains at almost 20 local hospitals.
“It’s been a blessing both to the priest, as well as to the patient,” Father Dolan added, “and it’s a great response to the mission of the Church that we are indeed called to be shepherds not only to the healthy but also to the sick.”