Need for pastoral visitors on the rise with growth in regional healthcare institutions

October 24, 2017

The Catholic Chaplains Corps of the Archdiocese provides sacramental and pastoral care to the growing number of patients, families and staff found at healthcare institutions in the Texas Medical Center and the Gulf Coast. CNS photo.

HOUSTON — When it comes to providing sacramental and pastoral care to the growing number of patients, families and staff found at healthcare institutions in the Texas Medical Center and regionwide, the need for more lay-person support is reaching critical limits.

In the Texas Medical Center alone, currently nine priests provide pastoral care and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and the Eucharist to the Catholic patients and hospital staff. Sixty trained pastoral visitors assist them by providing the Eucharist and pastoral care. The Catholic Chaplains Corps is one of 60 ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF).

“There are over 9,500 beds in just six covered hospitals, which means a single chaplain priest has a census of 150 patients per day in just the Texas Medical Center,” said Deacon Al Vacek, BCC, director of the Catholic Chaplain Corps of the Archdiocese. “It is easy to see that we have a huge need for trained pastoral visitors to help the priests provide for the spiritual and pastoral needs of the vast numbers of patients.”

Ten counties in the greater Houston area are served by the Archdiocese. Deacon Vacek said that if you look at just one regional hospital group, for example in The Woodlands, there are more than 1,000 beds at six of the major hospitals and that number is growing constantly.

“With more and more patients coming from around the entire State of Texas and foreign countries, the numbers just seem to increase daily,” Deacon Vacek said. “Over the last few years, there has been a veritable explosion in the number of Catholics with spiritual needs in the hospital settings. Our priests are to be commended for their incredible efforts in providing for the Catholic patients under such circumstances, but it’s almost like drinking from a fire hose!”

Deacon Vacek also commends the many pastoral visitors who assist the priests in healthcare institutions across the Archdiocese, but believes the ministry is in desperate need for many more to serve.

“Pastoral care extends beyond the hospital setting to the nursing homes, long-term care facilities and the homebound,” Deacon Vacek said. “Pastoral care ministry provides for spiritual and emotional support, as well as the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, for the patient, the patient’s family and the staff.”

In the 36 years of the Catholic Chaplain Corps existence, training has been provided to those serving as pastoral visitors. In light of the growing need for spiritual and emotional support, the Catholic Chaplain Corps now provides enhanced pastoral visitor training so that they might provide such care, thereby helping the patient to be even more predisposed to receive the Sacraments.

“In my own ministry experience as a pastoral visitor years ago, I once was ministering to a gentleman who was dying from cancer and had not spoken to his son in over 20 years due to some disagreement and resulting argument years earlier,” Deacon Vacek said. “He had feelings of anger, disappointment, grief and sorrow that haunted him in his last few dying days. Pastoral care was necessary to help him spiritually by allowing him to verbalize and express his pain, and particularly his feelings of guilt.”

Deacon Vacek said that after they discussed the spiritual and emotional healing and graces that follow the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Sacrament of the Sick, the patient eagerly sought the priest in order to approach the Lord for healing of his mind and spirit. He was then at peace; with God’s grace, he forgave his son, as well as himself.

Over the last few years, Deacon Vacek said training provided by the Catholic Chaplain Corps has been augmented in order to include new tools, methods and approaches, including the addition of three training levels to aid and assist pastoral visitors in their ministry and vocation to providing pastoral care and the Eucharist.

Level 1 training provides the fundamentals needed by any pastoral visitor to adequately minister to hospital patients, families and hospital staff. Level 2 training builds on the fundamentals from Level 1, and provides enhanced training, actual clinical patient encounters in hospitals, together with mentoring by professional chaplains.

Lastly, Level 3 includes a two-year certification program at St. Mary’s Seminary, in conjunction with the Archdiocese, for those who are interested in taking their vocation to a much higher level.

Deacon Vacek said it is important to support the DSF, because many ministries like his are entirely funded through this Archdiocesan-wide annual giving program.

“Without it, we would not be able to provide for our full-time priest chaplains, as well as training for the new pastoral visitors and ongoing, continuing education for the priests and current pastoral visitors, which all add up,” said Deacon Vacek. “Our mission would not be possible without the help of DSF. Due to the magnitude of the need, the costs are beyond the capability of local parishes alone.”

Deacon Vacek asks the people of the Archdiocese to keep the Catholic Chaplain Corps in their prayers, and to consider careful discernment in serving in this growing, vibrant ministry.

“We ask the Lord to give our current Priest Chaplains strength, and for more priests to come to the Corps, as well as more folks to discern whether they have a call to the Pastoral Visitor ministry,” Deacon Vacek said. “Care for the sick, elderly, and dying, as well as those who care for them, has always been a very important ministry in our Catholic faith. May God bless the Corps and those who serve.”