Being the face of God in the unknown

May 20, 2024

“The Catholic Chaplaincy team became our spiritual family,” says Eleanor, who accompanied her husband, Jonathan in the final months and weeks of his life at Royal North Shore Hospital. “When you have a loved one who is very unwell, the outside world keeps moving but inside the hospital it feels like a different world, and it’s not a place you want to be … but the Pastoral Care team would come and uplift us. The comfort they brought was beautiful. At the end of every visit they would say, ‘God bless you’ and we really felt it.”

Various members of the Catholic Chaplaincy team would visit Jonathan and Eleanor during their time at Royal North Shore Hospital, including priests, Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and Pastoral Care Practitioner, Louise. “Louise was an important part of our spiritual journey,” says Eleanor.

Jonathan was first diagnosed in 2019 and when they filled out the hospital paperwork, Eleanor recalls having the option of being visited by the Pastoral Care team. “I grew up Catholic and my husband was baptised Mormon, but he went to the Catholic Church when he moved to Australia, so it made sense to receive pastoral care from the Catholic Church.”

Eleanor says that at a basic level, the pastoral care visits meant that they weren’t just staring at four walls. “It meant a lot to have someone who wasn’t directly in our circle to come in,” says Eleanor. “Every time they left, we experienced a good, uplifting feeling. It was as if we had a new lease of life to get back on the saddle. They were patient, kind, empathetic and compassionate.”

It was a condition of the hospital that children could not enter the haematology ward where Jonathan was receiving care. “With three children under the age of 12, that was really hard,” says Eleanor.

Without Jonathan’s immediate family by his side, Eleanor describes clinging to their ‘hospital family’ that was made up of doctors, nurses and other patients, and the Pastoral Care team that formed their ‘spiritual family.’

Louise says that she would always come away from a visit with Jonathan and Eleanor feeling enriched by their faith and their witness. “They were a beacon to us of what family life is, of what faith is and what hope is,” says Louise. “They were a couple very much in love. You’d walk in and they’d be radiating this joy and peace. I understand the role that we became in being a spiritual family to them, but equally they ministered to us by being who and how they are.”

Louise describes her work with patients and their families as a ministry of the unknown. “On a daily basis, a patient’s condition can change. Depending on how the patient is that day, they may or may not be in a position to want to talk. You’re entering a sacred space, a space where someone is very, very unwell and no one knows what the outcome is.”

Louise says that she relies on the patient to lead how her time with them will flow. “If a patient is comfortable with you, then you find that they share with you what is going on for them, not only physically but in their home life and spiritually. We take a very holistic approach.”

During her visits with Jonathan and Eleanor, Louise says that much of the time was spent sitting, listening and reflecting back what was going on for them. “I’d ask what they would like prayers for, and they liked it when I prayed,” says Louise. “I went in to serve and to wait on them. This is a ministry of being the servant. In Dead Man Walking, Sr Helen Prejean said, ‘I will be the face of God for you,’ and that is how I see my role.”

For Eleanor and Jonathan, pastoral care helped them spiritually, emotionally and mentally, and Eleanor describes it as the push they needed to go forward.

“My husband would always say that when he gets better, he would like to pay it forward and provide pastoral care for others. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it and passed away in July 2022. He was 39 years old.”

Eleanor has since completed the Diocesan Pastoral Care Course and has plans to volunteer at Royal North Shore and Mona Vale Hospitals in the future. “I would like to pay forward that feeling of hope,” says Eleanor. “I know the struggles, but I also know the joy and the hope that comes with receiving this support.”

If you would like to know more about our Hospital Chaplaincy & Pastoral Care work please click here.

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