The Corporal Works of Mercy – visiting the sick


In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis calls us to reach out in very practical ways to the sick. Susanne Schmidt writes of her experience as Pastoral Care Manager, Calvary John James Hospital. Susanne is responsible for a team of Pastoral Care practitioners which at Calvary John James is a paid profession. She also looks after a team of volunteer Eucharistic ministers, providing daily communion to patients.

Twenty-one year old, university student, Llywellyn O’Brien is part of the network of volunteer pastoral carers at The Canberra Hospital. Hopefully, his story will inspire others to consider volunteering in this vital ministry in our community.

Understanding the needs of the sick  – Susanne Schmidt

I was going to begin this article with the sentence, “No-one enjoys going into hospital” but that’s actually not true from my experience. I have now worked as Pastoral Care Manager at Calvary John James Hospital in Deakin for four and a half years. I’ve heard many stories and spoken with hundreds of patients.  It would seem that people’s experiences of hospitals are indeed as varied, as people are themselves.

No one enjoys pain, suffering or illness, but for some people, going into hospital is actually part of a journey they are prepared to undertake. It might be the end of a pregnancy journey that results in a much-anticipated addition to their family. Maybe the hospital admission is for an operation to fix a problem that’s been bothering them for a long time.   It will thus be a relief to get respite or cure from something that has been a source of discomfort or pain, or caused limitations to them for some period of time and affected family life.

Sometimes the problem has been an ongoing one that’s just been getting worse and worse or been put off to be looked at “one day” until the issue has become too pressing or painful to be ignored any more. At other times, a problem arises suddenly and needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later and plans need to be rearranged, jobs and families disrupted at short notice to accommodate a sudden hospital admission.

Whatever the circumstances, people deal with their hospital admission in many different ways. Most people, regardless of personality type and desire (or not) for whatever is happening to them, are nervous on arrival. My running joke is there is a reason we call people in hospital “patients”, because you certainly need a lot of patience when you are in a hospital bed! Doctors, specialists and anesthetists have complicated schedules, so it’s often hard to predict when they might be coming in to see patients.  This can be somewhat frustrating for family members who want to be present to support their loved ones when the doctor comes with news and follow up. Nurses, who generally enter the profession because of an inbuilt desire to care for others can be run off their feet at times, and be slower to answer buzzers than sometimes patients desire. None of these are excuses, merely realities and frustrations of busy hospital life.

Parents staying overnight with fretful and fractious children who are not feeling well, and those parents who are suffering from broken sleep themselves, can find all these factor into situations that call upon every reserve of inner strength to maintain a positive outlook for their children. At Calvary John James, staff are well used to, and well trained to deal with the ups and downs of younger children and their needs while in hospital (and the needs of their parents!).

Our hospital has a chapel, which can offer a small oasis of quiet in a busy place. For some, it’s a place to spend time in prayer, Christian, or otherwise. For others, it’s a place simply to have some time out from the worry and stress of hospital life and re-link with their own sources of meaning and connection. This beautiful little place has helped many people to spend a moment in quiet contemplation, in asking, in thanking, in praising, rejoicing, pleading or simply just ‘being’ as they marshal and channel their resources for their time in hospital.

Pastoral Care provides spiritual and emotional support to patients and their families as they deal with illness and all that comes along with it. Skilled pastoral carers, through trained listening and a caring presence, support people to connect with their own inner and community resources. It is truly a work of the heart.

If you would like to enquire about training as a pastoral carer through Clinical Pastoral Education training (whether as a volunteer or as a future career pathway), please phone Susanne Schmidt, 6281 8160. For general volunteering opportunities at Calvary John James Hospital, phone 6281 8112.

Llywellyn O’Brien – Volunteer Pastoral Carer

Hospital wards are not your typical hang-out place for 21 year olds. However, Llywellyn O’Brien has been doing that most Friday mornings for the last three years.  Llywellyn is part of a larger team of volunteer pastoral carers who give up a few hours each week to visit the sick.  Most of the people he visits are Catholics, and quite often he is asked to bring them Communion and to pray with them.

There is much joy in this ministry, says Llywellyn. Patients are very appreciative that they can receive Communion in hospital.  Others are genuinely touched that, even if they have stopped being regular Mass attendees, the Church still wants to reach out to them – no strings attached.  Llywellyn admits that there are sometimes challenging moments in this ministry.  He recalls the privileged time he spent praying with the wife of a gentleman he had visited on many occasions, just after he had died.  He is particularly saddened for those patients who are lonely or afraid to go home.  Sometimes he leaves a patient feeling he could have handled a conversation better, but realises that it is less about the words, and more about just being there.

So what drives a young man to volunteer on such a regular basis, and on top of university studies, part-time work, youth ministry, going to Mass, family and a girlfriend! Well, he says, without trying to sound pious, it’s about being the face of Christ in a really practical way.

If you would like to take up Pope Francis’ call to ‘visit the sick’, then maybe you would consider becoming a pastoral carer at The Canberra Hospital. For more details, contact Deacon Joe Blackwell, Coordinator Catholic Spiritual Support Services Team, 6244 2783.

By Sharon Brewer