Last Friday I enjoyed my day at the annual Chaplains get together as we gathered on Wangi shores with Bishop Bill and Teresa Brierley to share experiences, enjoy each other’s company, partake in some hospitality and celebrate Mass together. There were 11 of us present (just missed out by 1 of the chosen 12 but disciples nonetheless).

When you hear the word chaplain, perhaps it conjures up thoughts and images of someone holy, religious, or even a counsellor, but having spent the day with like-minded people I can tell you that chaplains in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle are so much more. Sure, we are trained to provide care and support on a physical, emotional, physical or spiritual level, but it’s a ministry requiring chaplains to respond to wherever there’s a need - there, the chaplain needs to be.

We need to be respectful of anyone who crosses our path regardless of the meeting place and regardless of their belief system, ethnicity or social position. In short, chaplains are a link between the church and the marketplace where there is both the church gathered and the church scattered, but where there is prayer the Mass and a sacramental presence to touch the lives of those in need.

Let me outline ‘the marketplace’ that our chaplains minister in:

Hospitals - Calvary Mater Hospital, John Hunter Hospital and Maitland Hospital, where the chaplains provide pastoral care and spiritual outreach to patients, families and hospital staff.

Armed Forces - listening to those who face the rigours of service and more and to those whose stress is attributed to training and combat.

Residential Aged Care and CatholicCare Social Services - similar to hospital chaplaincy, but with a greater focus on the elderly and families who struggle with the changed life of their parents or loved ones.

Prison - a ministry of healing and reconciliation for inmates, their families and staff, particularly in crisis time.

Port - many ships visit the Newcastle Port and chaplains visit the ships or welcome the seafarers to their centre where the conversation is often about the feeling of being homesick they may experience after being away from their families for long periods of time.

Sport - this is a developing area of chaplaincy where you reach out to elite athletes, weekend warriors, highly competitive students and overzealous parents.

University - our diocesan chaplains work in a multi-faith department catering to the spiritual needs of students and staff alike.

Clergy - Sr Cath Williams is known as the chaplain to the clergy and supports the ordained ministers.

I have the privilege of being a sports chaplain in the Diocese. Having listened to the stories of other chaplains, both challenging and rewarding, on Saturday I reflected on how my ministry contributes to the community. However, in between overs in the Women’s Ashes, and the climb up in Pyrenees in the Tour de France, and my role as a panellist on Let’s Talk Sport with Craig Hamilton and Kurt Fearnley on ABC, I noticed on my home desk a copy of Gaudete Et Exsultate, the Apostolic Exhortation of the Holy Francis Francis on the Call to Holiness in Today’s World.

"Hmm," you may be wondering, "how are the Pope and my sports chaplaincy mutually beneficial?" Often in sport, the athlete can appear bigger than the sport or lose sight of their persona and its responsibilities, but Francis’ latest exhortation challenges us to reflect the saints who encourage and accompany us and to not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy (#32 La Femme pauvre).

I also recall reading an article back in May when Pope Francis declared that sport is good for the soul. He was addressing a gathering of 6,000 young people (co-sponsored by the Italian Gaming Federation of Soccer) and he encouraged them to get involved and engage with others. He lamented that sometimes sport is no longer a game but rather a fierce competition that brings acrimony between players as well as among parents, fans and coaches, who can sometimes be too over-zealous. How cool it would have been to be present at that gathering as the chaplain and to hear his closing remark about the value of sport and that ‘beyond the game, there is a life waiting for’ you.

The Exhortation also prompts us (or the athlete) to keep reminding ourselves that there is a hierarchy of virtues that bids us seek what is essential (#60. ThErEse of the Child Jesus), but the real sealer is in the Beatitudes and how the Holy Spirit fills us with his power and frees us from our weakness, our selfishness, our complacency and our prise (#65 L’Osservatore Romano). I’m wondering if any athletics or indeed tennis players come to mind as you read Francis’ words?

A part of my chaplains role in the diocese also spreads to other sporting organisations, particularly Cooks Hill SLSC. Here I am, privileged to sit and listen to families particularly those involved in the Same Wave program. This weekly event enables children with a disability to experience the same fun and highs the surf presents. Families share with me their struggles and joy, but to be a part of their conversations brings my ministry to life. Back to Pope Francis and his explanation of the Beatitude, blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted, he says, a person who sees things as they truly are and sympathises with pain and sorrow is capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness (#76Ibid., 239: 1116).

I love seeing so many of our school families, Catholic Schools staff and students getting involved at the club, utilising the gifts and talents they are blessed with and sharing the experience of being in nature’s playground. I’m sure Pope Francis would love Cooks Hill Club when he expressed, that the Lord expects a commitment to our brothers and sisters that come from the heart (#85 Rule, 53).

The last word goes to Pope Francis from his 10 suggestions for living in holiness, whether as a sports chaplain or as an active member of the community. In suggestion 5, he challenges us all to Live with Joy and a sense of humour.

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Helene O'Neill Image
Helene O'Neill

Helene O'Neill is the Parish-Family Liaison Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.