by Joe Bollig
TOPEKA — Parish ministry offers many challenges for a priest, including leaky roofs, administrative minutiae and counseling the troubled.
Few situations at a parish, however, can compare to being called out of bed at 2 a.m. because the Emergency Room is filled with several people suffering life-threatening injuries sustained in a car wreck.
“Hospital ministry is a unique pastoral ministry,” said Father Peter Nwanekezie, a chaplain at St. Francis Health Center in Topeka. “It is a unique pastoral ministry, because a greater part of the time, you are touching human suffering.”
Any hospital will have doctors of various specialties, nurses skilled in one type of care or another, and technicians. They form a team to restore health — to save lives.
Priests are not trained in the healing arts. Even so, they are an important part of the hospital team, because priests are doctors of the soul.
Often, a health crisis will lead to an existential crisis, which also needs treatment.
“[Being a chaplain] is a humbling experience,” said Father Diego Cadri, also a chaplain at St. Francis. “You see people die, you see people struggle, you see people affirmed in their faith.
“And also you see people very angry — [They ask,] ‘Why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to my family?’”
The hospital chaplain is there to treat their souls and walk with them through the crucible.
“At the end of the day, you find people always go to their spiritual roots,” said Father Cadri. “And people have a lot of stories about that, too.”
At a time when it can be difficult to get even one Catholic priest to serve as chaplain at a hospital, St. Francis Health Center — the only Catholic hospital in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas — is blessed to have two. Additionally, the hospital has a Lutheran chaplain.
Father Peter Nwanekezie, 57, is a priest of the Diocese of Nnewi in southeast Nigeria. Father Diego Cadri, 52, is from the Diocese of Arua in northwest Uganda.
Father Nwanekezie, ordained on April 2, 1989, arrived in Canada in 2002 and did pastoral work in the Archdiocese of Regina, Saskatchewan. He also studied counseling and spirituality at St. Paul University in Ottawa. He has chaplain certification.
Father Diego Cadri came to the United States in 1997 to study for a doctorate in philosophy and theology, and a master of arts degree at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He was at Advocate Christ Hospital in Chicago, where he did his clinical pastoral education. He became a board certified chaplain.
Both priests came to St. Francis in 2009 with archdiocesan approval: Father Cadri in September and Father Nwanekezie in October. They replaced a single chaplain who had been reassigned.
“Countries that are more favored with human resources share with those with fewer human resources,” said Father Nwanekezie. “So, it is a missionary thing. The dioceses cooperate in sharing the resources they have.”
Although they sometimes assist at Topeka parishes — Father Nwanekezie lives at Mater Dei’s rectory — their primary duty is to cover the hospital.
This produces two benefits for Topeka-area Catholics. One, a Catholic priest is usually available at the hospital. And two, it takes a load off of Topeka pastors, who are spared the responsibility of providing coverage to the hospital in addition to their parishes.
The two priests work as a team. They are both available during the day, covering different areas of the hospital. And they alternate possession of the pager to respond to evening and weekend calls.
“It is a blessing to have two priests in a hospital like this, because when you look around nationwide, you see a shortage of priests and of priests who are also trained as chaplains and are board certified,” said Father Cadri.
The chaplains minister not only to the patients, but also to the patients’ families and the hospital staff.
Although hospital chaplaincy is not the same as parish ministry, the two priests administer almost all the sacraments — the exceptions being confirmation and holy orders.
Much of their work is not sacramental, but, instead, a ministry of listening to the patients’ stories and walking with them through their ordeal.
“When you see yourself in the hospital, there is this sense of danger — ‘My life is in danger,’ is what most individuals who come to the hospital most time feel,” said Father Nwanekezie.
“When they feel that way, they need a companion, a friend, someone to reassure them that ‘I am here for you. The journey may be tough, but you are not alone,’” he said.
When a chaplain empathizes with those he ministers to, he shares some of his own human vulnerability.
There are moments of joy — like when the hospital intercom plays a harp version of Brahms’ “Lullaby” — and moments of crisis when a code blue signals that someone is need of immediate medical attention.
Some of those moments are seared into the memories of Father Nwanekezie and Father Cadri — keeping watch with a family as their first child died in its parents’ arms, a stabbing victim of domestic violence, a mother grieving her teenage son shot dead in a gang-related incident, and telling a man that his illness is terminal.
The memories are painful and joyful, happy and sad, but always contain elements of grace and mystery. Chaplains are ministers of hope.
“In the midst of that loss, there is another future hope story,” said Father Nwanekezie, using the example of a family that lost a child. “Life is not ended. This is not the end. It may be very sad. It may be very tragic. They may be very disappointed.”
“But there is still this hope, and that is so much in the life and ministry of a chaplain — that we still have hope,” he continued. “With our faith in God, and everything we have in our humanity, there is still hope that some good come out of this.
“Most families hang on this hope and are able to cope.”