The blessings and sorrows of being a female Catholic hospital chaplain
Author note: Some identifying information about the families in this story have been altered to protect their anonymity.
I baptized the baby as she died in her mother’s arms. The baptism was not magic, but it was something. This is all I can really say about my work this past year as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. It is not magic, but it is something.
I am a lay Catholic who, after years working as a university chaplain, recently shifted to hospital chaplaincy. For five years at the college, I had sat on a brown leather chair and talked students through spiritual crises: grief, a failing chemistry grade, a failing relationship, suicidal ideation. I prayed over the loudspeaker at D1 football games, paper prayer trembling in my hands in the press box. I said a blessing at chicken dinners to welcome new students and wrote countless graduate school recommendation letters.
We hosted a Blessing of the Animals service each October on the steps of the campus chapel. “Wear a stole,” a colleague suggested for my first service, “to show your pastoral authority.” But I didn’t think I was allowed to bless animals. Would it count, my muttered words and my outstretched hand? Can a Catholic woman really bless an animal? That first year, I wore a purple polo shirt and handed out prayer cards after the service ended.
The baptism was not magic, but it was something.
Years later, I had dogs sitting in my lap, licking my cheek with their hot, wet tongues; I reminded them that they are holy. I did not make them holy—not my female hand nor my metallic name tag nor my wrinkly linen slacks. My blessing did not make them holy. They are holy because they are created.
Now, when I am not caring for my two young children or studying for a class as I pursue a degree in nursing, I work one or two nights a week at the children’s hospital. I rest on a plastic couch and respond to pages throughout the evening. On a good night, people typically do not need a hospital chaplain. My journal, which I use to process hard shifts, currently lists the names of 19 children who have died this year after our lives had briefly crossed. Nineteen children who died after I spoke with their crying mother, their weary father. My first was a co-sleeping accident, my second a suicide. Drownings, aneurysms, cancer and the unspeakable. The unspeakable is child abuse; I cannot talk about it, not yet.
At these times, I walk the family out of the hospital when they are ready, usually several hours after the death, and then I return to the room to sit with the child’s body as I promised I would. “They will not be alone,” I assure the mother with a fierce hug. “I will sit with her as long as I can.” White floor, dim lights, artificial life support machines eerily silent. I find an uncomfortable chair or a stool and sit with my head bowed until it is time to take the child’s body to the morgue.
The unspeakable deaths are from child abuse; I cannot talk about it, not yet.
Sometimes I pray, sometimes I sing a hymn from Mass, sometimes I weep full-body, shaking tears. Once in a while I try to numb myself completely and read about the newest Taylor Swift release on my phone, discreetly. By the time I walk to the morgue with the body, my shoulders ache from tension and grief. I make small talk with nurses, making sure they are recovering from the unexpected sting of the night, before I return to my plastic couch.
The 19 children included two baptisms. Both babies born too soon and too sick to make it in the world. Both babies loved dearly by beautiful and flawed parents (like the rest of us).
The baptisms are like this: a sprint down the bright hallways at 2:00 a.m, a fanny pack with a small vial of holy water and seashells, a short liturgy scrawled on folded-up paper. Not only can lay chaplains perform baptisms, but the babies are also, in a way, baptized with the tears of their mothers and fathers, wiped with a cloth embroidered by a nurse at the hospital who makes them for us to use on these shifts.
Not only can lay chaplains perform baptisms, but the babies are also, in a way, baptized with the tears of their mothers and fathers.
I withdraw to the corner of the room and watch the family huddle together in the night. I whisper prayers to the baby when we wash her body later that evening, after her mom and dad have left. She is honored by the tender nurse this time, wrapped in a simple cloth and carried downstairs to the morgue like a package. We slip the package into the refrigerated morgue and scribble her name in the book. “Don’t forget to leave the body release form,” someone reminds me. A gentle reminder that this—this—is also a task with protocol to follow. I set the paperwork in a tray.
I did not make them holy—not my hand nor my plastic name tag nor my floral blouse. My blessing did not make them holy. They are holy because they are loved by God.
And then, one evening: “But will he be here tonight?” I say to an answering service staffer. “Soon? Is there a phone number I can call?” I have called a hotline to request a Catholic priest at the hospital, but the person on the line cannot tell me when or if he will make it this evening. “He just shows up when he can,” she says. “That is all I can tell you. Just wait.”
My blessing did not make them holy. They are holy because they are loved by God.
But we cannot wait. A toddler is dying, deteriorating rapidly, and parents are asking in Spanish for a priest to perform the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Before placing the call to the Catholic Hospital Ministries Hotline, I had googled on my phone, just in case. “Do you actually need a priest to perform a Catholic anointing of the sick?”
Of course I knew the answer; the family knew the answer, maybe you know the answer. You have to be an ordained priest to perform this ritual, and in the Catholic Church you must be a man to be a priest. “Sorry, it’s not your fault, I know,” I say to the hotline representative on the phone. My face turns red with anger, my eyes wet with tears. “If I was a man, though, I could give this family what they wanted.”
I know I am lashing out at her, that I am throwing a flippant response to a complicated situation. Being a man would not suddenly make me a priest, but it would give me the option, at least. I earned my graduate degree alongside priests at a Jesuit seminary, after all. My hands are shaking as I hang up the phone. There are not enough priests, I know this, but I’m here. I’m here.
“Do you actually need a priest to perform a Catholic anointing of the sick?” Of course I knew the answer.
I return to the hospital room and sit next to the child's mother. We both hold pastel plastic rosaries. The machines beep incessantly and all of the lights are on and nurses are pounding, pounding, pounding on his little body. Shoulder to shoulder we sit. She prays in Spanish; I pray in English. Hail Mary, full of Grace. Dios te salve, María, Llena eres de gracia.
Two hours later, I called the hotline back. “This is the children’s hospital chaplain, did we speak earlier? You can leave the priest another message. The child has died; his services are no longer needed.” She is silent.
After the family has some time alone with their child, I come back in with a translator. Their son is on the bed, wearing a shirt with his favorite cartoon character on it. There is a lot of blood staining his body, the sheets, his mother’s shirt; chest compressions are so much more violent than TV leads you to believe.
The child has died; the priest's services are no longer needed.
Here is the belated sacrament I can offer: I fill one of the same small seashells I use for baptisms with holy water. I say a short prayer, dip my finger in the cool pool of water and make the sign of the cross on his forehead. I invite mom and dad and big brother to do the same. Their hands are shaking, too, from grief and shock. But this ritual feels familiar and right. En el nombre del padre, del hijo y del espíritu santo.
The family who wanted their son to receive the anointing of the sick instead left the hospital with paperwork on how to transfer his body to The Valley. I felt nearly empty.
They left, and I measured a red wagon to make sure his body would fit. We kept him in the clothes his mother picked out, even though I know we are supposed to remove all his clothes. But how could I take that “Bluey” shirt off. Could you have taken off his “Bluey” shirt? His body fit in the wagon, wrapped in a body bag, covered in a blanket. The nurse called the hospital’s night shift nursing supervisor to walk with us to the morgue. “Which chaplain are you working with?” she asked.
“Britt,” said the bedside nurse.
“She’s done this plenty; she knows what to do. You can go without me.” It is a walk I have made nearly 20 times. And counting. I do not need a guide; there is no one I need to wait for anymore. We grab the handle of the wagon and pull.