By Tracey Primrose
May 5, 2020 — When working with his colleagues at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, Fr. Mark Ciccone, SJ, constantly reminds them: “When you take care of people with kindness and compassion and surround someone with healing, you are no less a presence of the holy than I try to be as a chaplain.”
Those of us on the sidelines of the epic battle to contain the coronavirus understand exactly what Fr. Ciccone is talking about. The nurses, doctors, EMTs and other healthcare workers who are risking their lives to bring care and comfort to the afflicted are more than just heroes, they are angels among us.
These days, Fr. Ciccone’s work is as much about ministering to his healthcare colleagues as it is to the hospitalized and their families. Self-care, he says, is paramount, since chaplains and healthcare workers are, in many ways, cut from the same cloth. “When there is a fire, we run toward it, not away. We run toward pain, frustration and sadness.”
Like everything else, the coronavirus has radically changed the way hospital chaplains do their jobs. A ministry grounded in one-on-one interaction with patients has had to adapt quickly when hospitals, working frantically to control the spread of the disease, have curtailed and, in some cases, prohibited access to the sick and dying. Fr. Ciccone’s prayer for himself and his healthcare colleagues is, “Keep us dedicated and compassionate, clever and wise.”
He includes “clever” because Fr. Ciccone and his fellow chaplains are forced these days to constantly reinvent how they do their jobs. Can they use hospital intercoms to pray with patients? Can a nurse use an iPad to record a Catholic chaplain giving last rites to someone with stage 4 cancer so family members can take part remotely? And how do you minister to someone diagnosed with COVID-19 when chaplains are not permitted in a patient’s room? Here, Fr. Ciccone, suppresses his deeply held belief about the healing power of touch and picks up the phone or tablet. Sometimes, “teleministry” is as good as it gets.
There is a beautiful simplicity about the basic mandate of a chaplain, given that it is about one thing only: care of souls. The souls on Fr. Ciccone’s charge sheet include patients, family members, doctors, nurses, aides, technicians, orderlies, social workers, housekeeping and cafeteria staff, security personnel, administrators and more. His is a ministry of consolation. And God, Fr. Ciccone says, “is bedside always.”
Although he has served in medical ministry since the early 1980s, Fr. Ciccone did not originally imagine chaplaincy would figure large in his life’s work. He thought he would get a degree and go into teaching when he finished theology studies. But, when he was asked to do AIDS ministry in the early days of that epidemic, he signed on quickly, believing that was somewhere the Church and the Jesuits needed to be. After working as a chaplain and bereavement counselor at an AIDS hospice, he never looked back and has been involved with medical ministries in some capacity ever since.
“Chaplaincy allows you to engage your faith in the most radical, powerful way. Every day in every encounter, you have a chance to represent the Good News. So, ministry in a hospital, room by room, colleague by colleague, family by family, you engage people in a way where faith has a powerful, practical application.”