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Pastoral education program fosters new generation of hospital chaplains

By Radiant Admin on 
Posted on January 18, 2018

Pastoral education program fosters new generation of hospital chaplains

As the body heals, the soul also heals. 

Spiritual care has been at the heart of St. Vincent Charity patient care ever since the pioneering Sisters of Charity of St. Augustine founded the hospital in 1865. As the nation’s health care providers work to develop comprehensive strategies to improve patients’ overall health, there is growing acceptance and understanding of what the sisters knew more than 160 years ago – that the spiritual part of healing is just as important as a patient’s physical healing.

With three hospital-based chaplains and care givers guided by the sisters’ mission, St. Vincent Charity tends to patients’ spiritual needs as they heal from their physical ailments to enhance long-term health.

“We are extending the healing mission of Jesus through our chaplains, physicians and all our care givers. At St. Vincent Charity, we believe the spiritual component of health care is central to our Catholic identity,” said Sister Miriam Erb, CSA, vice president of mission and ministry.  “As the hands and feet of Jesus, we work to improve our patients’ overall health so they can live the life to which God is calling them.”

Through St. Vincent Charity’s Clinical Pastoral Education Program, founded in 2000, the hospital is educating and fostering a new generation of hospital chaplains to tend to the spiritual needs of patients throughout the region.

Led by ACPE Certified Educator Joe Viti, the year-long program enables four students each year to learn and enhance their pastoral skills through a three-phase curriculum and hands-on patient experience. Accredited by The Association of Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc., the program teaches empathy skills, pastoral listening and how to work collaboratively with health care providers to assist patients and families.

The first essential step in the program, Viti said, is a process of self-reflection for students to deepen their awareness of their own lives, and their struggles, strengths and weaknesses. Students develop a story of their own life through a family genogram, which traces issues passed through generations, to deepen their self-knowledge.

“You cannot minister to someone if you haven’t dealt with your own troubles,” Viti said.  “The students gain greater insight into themselves – what are their strengths and what are the challenges they may have overcome – so they are better able to offer valuable support to patients who are suffering.”

This process was critical to 2017 graduate Dwayne Davis, who completed his theology degree at Ashland Theological Seminary. Davis, who utilizes a mobility scooter due to a disability and came from a one-parent home, found, through self-reflection, he was better able to connect with patients. 

“I meet so many patients with some of the same struggles I have. Once I was able to reflect on my experiences and put them into context, I created a stronger connection with patients and families with a sense of trust that I could identify with their illness and their challenges,” Davis said.

As part of the program, students complete a series of seminars to build pastoral skills, including patient listening, empathy and reflective feeling. Mentoring and shadowing are critical components of the program to provide greater confidence and courage to meet with patients one-on-one.

“Because they are in the hospital, many times patients and families are suffering and under tremendous stress. We teach how to be a non-anxious presence with patients and families,” Viti said. “We need to be calm and to be present in order to take in their spiritual needs.”

After meeting with patients and families, students then reflect, in conjunction with the pastoral education team, on how they interacted with patients. The program also fosters collaboration with health care providers to provide stronger coordination in care and deeper insights into a patient’s situation. 

Joseph McCartney, 2017 graduate and now director of pastoral care at Mount Alverna Village in Parma, said these reflections helped to prepare him for his ministry.

“Even though I had my fair share of visiting parishioners as a parish priest, I did not feel proficient in talking with patients in the hospital,” McCartney said. “The opportunity to reflect on my interaction with patients helped me learn how to be more at ease, so I could be more in touch with their feelings. Working with the interdisciplinary team enabled us to ensure that we were working with the whole person, both physically and spiritually.”

While there are other pastoral education programs available in Northeast Ohio, St. Vincent Charity’s program is unique because of the hospital’s faith-based mission. The hospital serves with a deep respect for the dignity and value of all persons through Christ’s healing mission.

His ability to openly talk with patients about their faith, Davis said, reaffirmed his desire to become a hospital-based chaplain. Davis reflected on an experience several years ago when he was at a local emergency room to have an x-ray and saw a mother trying to console her sick child. Davis instantly felt compelled to reach out to comfort the pair.  At that moment, he said, he felt a calling to become a hospital chaplain.

“At other hospitals where I interned, I wasn’t allowed to talk about God or ask a person about their faith. At St. Vincent, when patients saw me coming, they started talking,” Davis said.  “My experience here validated that what I felt that day in the ER was, in fact, a true calling.”

Those interested in St. Vincent Charity’s pastoral education program, should contact Joe Viti at 216-363-7471.

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