Once a year, Bishop Bill gathers with those who are ministering to the church ‘scattered’, in the mission field; to those in prison, hospital, aged care, university, armed forces and the port.
We sit in the presence of each other and listen to the outreach these wonderful people provide to those who connect with our church, mostly when they are hurting and need the reassurance that God really cares for them and their families. I hope they hear the words: ”Do not be afraid.... You are my dearest friends.” In most of the situations that were shared by the chaplains it seems that they are journeying with those who are struggling. One of the chaplains titled her reflection, “Embrace the future with hope.” For many, by the time they encounter the chaplain they feel lost and worried, a bit like the disciples in the boat during the storm when they said to Jesus, “Master, do you not care? We are going down!” How good is it that we are in this place at this time for whoever comes?
Part of our conversation spoke of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. Those caring for the sick in our healthcare facilities know the value and significance of calling for a priest for the one who is gravely ill or dying. This really is for many the Sacrament of consolation. I recall when my mother-in-law was dying and she had become very restless. I surmised that even though she had recently been anointed, she wished for a priest to be with her at this time of her passing. She had never died before and she somehow knew in her sub-conscious state that she wanted a priest to be part of this rite of passage for her, and probably for her family. I recall, that once the priest had anointed her, she was calm and moved on gently to her last breath.
Our Sacraments provide us with that point of connection, that place of healing, that place of relationship which is beyond explanation. It is a place of faith and trust, and our chaplains experience this daily. I wonder how many of those who gather for Mass each week allow themselves to feel this connection to the Mystery, and also, for those who don’t come, how many sense a lack of awareness of what they are missing.
For some of our chaplains it is more faith in action that speaks to those who connect with them. Our Apostleship of the Sea, ministering with the Anglican Mission to Seafarers, provide a safe place for the seafarers who visit our shores. After months at sea, a bus picks them up from their vessels and takes them to the shops. Not only do these men buy items, they enjoy just seeing people going about their normal daily lives, and having a good cup of coffee with the earth beneath their feet. If they call in at the Seafarers Centre, they are able to Skype their families and see each other face to face or at least screen to screen. For these men, their families grow up while they are sailing the seas. There are times when a Mass is requested for the crew on their ships and some of our priests climb the ship’s ladders to attend to the spiritual needs of the crew. I believe these are very special moments for all.
In the armed forces it has become important for a safe place to be ‘marketed’ because the word 'chaplain' brings with it religious connotations which many young people are wary of. Crossing the threshold into this safe place, the realisation comes that tapping into their deep spiritual needs is indeed most healing and indeed beneficial. I am convinced that we are a soul which just inherits a body for a short period of time, and our chaplains remind people of this mystery.
Listening to our chaplains, I could not help but sense that our secular world is effectively instilling in people a deep suspicion of the religious world. I think there is a real movement to separate state and religion, as if they are two completely separate worlds. Putting this another way, there is a attempt to divide the rational from the non-rational. Our chaplains are called to hold God’s world in unity. One of the chaplains spoke of providing a warm body in what has become a very clinical world. This ‘warm body’ is what we know to be the presence of God. It is in our sitting with others and praying with them, and for them, which creates our point of difference from other service providers.
In all of the places in which our chaplains minister there is prayer, the Mass, the Sacraments and the voice, ears and touch of someone who cares. This is the church gathered, with the Sacrament of Jesus at the centre. Our chaplains empower others to have faith and to see the face of God in others, and in the world that surrounds them.
Our chaplains are priests, deacons, sisters and lay men and women. We are all disciples in God’s mission field. We bring our own particular gifts to the ministries to which we are called. As the baptised, we are seeking to hear God’s call in our daily encounters. Interestingly, the young people involved in our diocesan Pastoral Placement Program are presently seeking their place in the changing landscape of our church. They are involved in the ‘taste and see’ of these many ministries to the church ‘scattered’, while also remaining closely connected to the church ‘gathered’ in their local parishes and in particular with the ministries of the Diocesan Council of Ministry with Young People. They are exploring God’s call to them, and we are attempting to journey with them.
I know that what lies ahead of us, as a Catholic Church, will not look like what I have experienced historically, and so like the disciples on the boat in the storm, I must trust and know that Jesus is with me and with us, and if we call (pray), Jesus will reassure us the words, “Quiet now! Be calm!”
What each of the chaplains shared in common was the daily experience of not knowing what the day would bring. This ‘warm body’ ministry of our chaplains and pastoral care workers also needs to be present in our parishes and local communities. The chaplains are flexible enough to trust and to reflect on their experiences, seeing God’s presence in the big and the not-so-big moments of their daily encounters.
We need more workers in the harvest. Please pray about what God is calling you to, or what God is asking of you, to invite others to consider their gifts. Be on the lookout for the moments of encounter and realise them as a blessing in discipleship.
I feel very blessed to have spent the day at the beautifully located Mercy Spirituality Centre at Toronto with Bishop Bill and our wonderful chaplains. They are the faces that form the point of connection between the church gathered and the church scattered.