A conversation with a Catholic chaplain: Caring for families

Deacon Jeff Tully

Hospital Chaplain Coordinator Archdiocese of New Orleans

What do you do?

Archbishop Aymond created the role in 2014. I coordinate health-care chaplaincy across the archdiocese’s eight civil parishes at settings that include hospitals, nursing homes, assisted-living residences and hospice care. There are 123 medical facilities in the archdiocese, including 45 hospitals. Our main challenge is, how are we reaching the Catholics, at minimum, in those places? If we look at hospitals and nursing homes alone, there are 14,000 patient beds in the archdiocese. If we conservatively estimate that these beds are 75% occupied, and our demographics tell us that 42% of those patients are Catholic, that means there are 4,400 Catholics in a hospital or nursing home bed on a given day. So, how do we minister to them, as well as to their families and caregivers? Our goal is to have a Catholic presence as much as we possibly can in those places.

With the need for spiritual support outstripping the number of available priests, deacons and lay ministers, how do you begin to serve this population?

The archbishop has assigned 14 priests – some full time, some part time – to hospitals as chaplains. Sometimes a hospital doesn’t need a full-time priest, so a priest might be assigned to a couple of hospitals. We also have a connection to every single area of the archdiocese through our church parishes. Parish priests respond to needs in his area when there is a need for a Catholic priest, especially when the sacraments are requested. Deacons with a gift for chaplain ministry are also assigned at health facilities, visiting patients, bringing them Communion and alerting the priest if one is needed. Extraordinary ministers of holy Communion – lay people – are also involved in hospital ministry, interacting with the people and bringing them Communion. 

Describe a typical day of a hospital chaplain.

We have a priest assigned full time at University Medical Center, to give you an example. He goes in in the morning and visits patients. He’s available for the sacraments. He celebrates Mass at that hospital six days a week. Most of our hospitals now offer Mass, whereas they didn’t have that in years past. The chaplain is also there for the families and for the staff. He’ll visit the families; he’ll anoint patients. If there’s an emergency, the hospital will call him after hours and he’ll go back. We’ve got a priest in St. Tammany who goes to the hospital at 5:30 a.m. to visit with patients before they go into surgery.

How do you find patients?

The chaplains receive a list of all the Catholic patients, with a focus on any new admits. They also go to the nurses’ station to find out if there is anyone who might really need a visit that day, especially in the areas of critical care – the ICU, the CCU. Chaplains will meet with patients and their families before surgery. It doesn’t matter if they’re Catholic.

What’s the thing patients and families want most?

Comfort. They just need to know that the church is there. Sometimes people want to have the anointing of the sick because they feel that “If I’m going to die” they need to know that they’re good with God and received the apostolic blessing from the priest. Or maybe the patient just wants to talk to a priest about something or ask him a question. Sometimes a patient may not even be conscious, but you’re still there to minister to the family. Again, it’s a ministry of presence.

What is the most misunderstood thing about Catholic chaplaincy?

The misconceptions fall into four categories:

1. Anointing of the sick:

There’s no such thing as “Last Rites,” and that’s where some confusion has crept in. It’s the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. The anointing of the sick doesn’t “expire.” So, if Grandma was anointed last Tuesday and she dies three weeks later – and she’s been in the hospital the whole time – she’s still good to go. You do not have to be seriously ill to receive this sacrament, and you can receive it multiple times. In fact, if you’re going into a hospital for any type of invasive procedure, you can ask to be anointed. We recommend going to your pastor for anointing before you even go to the hospital. If you didn’t have time or there isn’t a Catholic priest assigned to your hospital, let the hospital staff know. For the last two years, the archdiocese has had an emergency telephone system to ensure that a dying person receives anointing from a priest.

2. Confusion about matters pertaining to dying and death: Many Catholics have a poor understanding of end-of-life issues. Our office offers a class called “What Does the Catholic Church Teach About End of Life?” We talk about everything from what conditions warrant the removal of a feeding tube to organ donation. What are the guidelines about giving a dying loved one food and water? What are “extraordinary means”? What burial practices are accepted by the Catholic Church?

3. Catholic chaplains serve everyone, regardless of their faith: We don’t only minister to Catholics. We’re there for all of God’s people. Our job is to connect people to their faith. So, if we’re in a hospital and there is a Baptist patient, and if they want to talk to a Catholic priest, as some of them do – that’s fine. But if they want to talk to their Baptist minister, then our job is to connect them to that minister. The Baptist Christian ministry chaplains at Touro Infirmary have been working alongside Father Doug Brougher, the Catholic chaplain, for 31 years. If they need a priest as they’re making their rounds, they’ll call Father Doug. They even teach classes together. When we go into a hospital, we as the Catholic Church do not want to take control of the spiritual services. We want to minister side by side.

4. We are not only available to patients and their families, but to health-care staff: Because their jobs put them in such close proximity to illness and death, they need to get their bucket filled. They need to talk. Many are juggling work and raising a family, but maybe they don’t have time to talk to their parish priest because they work nights and sleep during the day. But if they see the priest in the hospital, they can seek him out. One of the archbishop’s goals is for every Catholic in our hospitals to have access to holy Communion every single day, and at least once a week in nursing homes. We’re still striving to do that, and that’s why we need to recruit more extraordinary ministers of holy Communion into hospital ministry.

What satisfies you most in your ministry?

You see the level of comfort that you bring to a patient and their family, whether the patient lives or dies. We don’t have the answers – sometimes you’re just a shoulder or a listening ear. And sometimes you’re there to help the family do other things, like plan the funeral.

What’s your biggest challenge?

It’s a continuous challenge to try to reach and meet the needs of Catholics at medical facilities, not just the patients and their families but also Catholic staff at those places. We just don’t have enough resources for them. But as we are sending more priests and deacons into health-care ministry, we are starting to reach them more and more.

What advice do you give your chaplains?

We tell our chaplains all the time: “Everybody who’s in those beds is Jesus.” My faith is bolstered all the time because I see Jesus through other people. I see bravery. I see courage. I see people talking how they’re ready to see God. I don’t see a whole lot of fear in people, especially in patients who have been sick for a long time. I do often see voids and gaps and fears and unknowns in surviving family members. They need to be comforted.

Deacon Jeff Tully said his ministry welcomes ongoing donations of rosaries, which are given to any patient who desires one. For more information, email jtully@arch-no.org.

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