Archdiocese coordinates its chaplaincy ministry

 
If there is anything Deacon Jeff Tully knows, it is the hospital business.
 
For nearly four decades, Deacon Tully worked in hospitals and in hospital administration, learning to speak a language that is Greek to most people. He can spout medical acronyms – HIPAA, NICU, ER, DNR – as though they were his favorite Bible verses.
 
 Now Deacon Tully has been charged by Archbishop Gregory Aymond to enhance the archdiocese’s ministry to those in hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and in hospice, a spiritual outreach to families in moments of crisis that often can result in bringing individuals and entire families back to the practice of their Catholic faith.
 
Deacon Tully knows his numbers and his challenges: “In the Archdiocese of New Orleans there are now 42 hospitals. Some are very small. There are a total of 5,600 hospital beds and more than 5,000 nursing home beds. If we say that those beds are 75 percent occupied, which is being conservative, and of those occupied, 42 percent are Catholic, that means there are 3,100 Catholics in hospital and nursing home beds every single day of the year.”
 
And, that’s one very big flock.
 
“How do we minister to those people, because as baptized Catholics – not just as the church – we’re called to minister to the sick?” Deacon Tully asked.
 
With the prospect of more priests retiring and fewer priests taking their place, the challenge becomes even more important to address now, Deacon Tully said. In previous years, the archbishop assigned priests and deacons to provide chaplain’s services to specific health care institutions.
 
“But there was no coordinated effort to be a gatekeeper,” Deacon Tully said.
 
In his new role as coordinator of Catholic hospital chaplains, Deacon Tully is taking a businesslike approach, and the numbers are guiding him in new directions. Working with the archdiocesan Information Technology Office, he has created a database map that plots out the locations of all hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the archdiocese, with imbedded information on the Catholic parish responsible for providing spiritual care to each facility.
 
The database also allows him to list the priests, deacons, eucharistic ministers and volunteers available for ministry.
 
“There is no question we have fewer priests than we had pre-Katrina, so we’re looking at a model where maybe we have a priest over a geographic area of hospitals or covering a couple of hospitals,” Deacon Tully said. “But I want the priests who are already serving as chaplains to understand that we’re not moving them. We want to help by finding more permanent deacons who can be assigned to health care in the archdiocese as a way of helping the priests serve the people who really need the sacraments.”

More training is planned

Some parishes already dispatch extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to the hospitals to bring the Eucharist to the sick. As a former hospital administrator, Deacon Tully is aware of how important it is for ministers entering a hospital to have proper training. He is working with the Office of Worship to develop a 90-minute training seminar focusing on spiritual formation and on health care terminology.

For example, Deacon Tully said, there are some patients who may be unable to swallow the Eucharist, and nursing homes and hospitals have stringent rules for people making patient visits.

“It’s not the same thing as going into someone’s private home,” Deacon Tully said. “They have to know about knocking on the door. They can’t carry a candle with them because of oxygen that may be administered. We want to train them so they can become ministers of Communion and not just ‘distributors.’”

For example, a eucharistic minister may have only two hours to volunteer but has a list of 60 people who receive Communion. “Then it becomes distributing Communion – boom, boom, boom,” Deacon Tully said. “We want to increase the number of extraordinary ministers.”

Ideally, Deacon Tully would like an additional 100 eucharistic ministers per deanery for a total of 1,000 throughout the archdiocese. He said there are about 10,000 eucharistic ministers serving in parishes right now.

The goal would be for the Communion ministers to go through the training and then be commissioned by Archbishop Aymond at White Masses on the southshore and the northshore in early 2016.

Another dream is to have one emergency telephone number that a hospital or nursing home could call if a priest is needed to anoint a patient. The number would be answered by a permanent deacon, who would be able to determine if the patient needs a priest and which priest should be called.

“Sometimes what has happened is that three or four different family members will call a priest they know, and all of a sudden you have two or three priests showing up to administer the same sacrament,” Deacon Tully said. “We want to coordinate that better. Maybe the patient turns out to be a Methodist lady. We can triage the situation and truly ask the right questions.”

Caring for the staffs

Deacon Tully said it also is important to care for the spiritual needs of hospital staffs, which means in some case providing for a weekend Mass for those who are working long hours or an overnight shift. “We don’t want to create a parish, but we do want to be able to offer Mass for those who are unable to leave,” he said.

Deacon Tully also wants to increase the number of persons who could serve as hospital volunteers who would pray or visit with patients or offer companionship. He said schools and parishes also could help out by providing rosaries made of cord or nylon to give to patients.

Individuals preparing for surgery should seek out their pastors before going to the hospital to receive the sacrament of the sick, Deacon Tully said.

“We don’t like to think about it, but anything can happen in health care,” he said. “We want people to get anointed by their pastor, but in the event they can’t, they should let the hospital staff know to alert the chaplaincy staff.”

There are 11 priests and 20 permanent deacons assigned to health care ministry. Father Doug Brougher, who has been chaplain of Touro Infirmary for the last 29 years, said his hospital ministry has been a blessing for his priesthood.

His volunteer coordinator, Anne Phillips, organizes a team of 25 eucharistic minister.

“I can’t say enough how rewarding and fulfilling it is,” Father Brougher said. “You visit the sick. You give them so little, and they appreciate it so much.”

Father Brougher said hidden evangelization opportunities often show up when a family is faced with serious illness or death.

“One of the great things is the opportunity to receive people back into the church,” Father Brougher said. “Often they’ve been away for years and years. I can hear their confession, give them Communion and anoint them. I’m told this is why Archbishop Hannan started putting full-time chaplains in the hospitals. This is where people often come back to the church.”

Father Brougher said he is excited about Deacon Tully’s initiative to enhance the chaplaincy program around the archdiocese.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Father Brougher said. “I know I have been at a special place at Touro. It’s a friendly place with a friendly spirit. They make me feel like part of a family.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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