The reassuring hand, the warm word, the kindly thought… 

The reassuring hand, the warm word, the kindly thought…  Deacon Richard Becker, director of pastoral care and ethics, blesses patient Camille Watts on World Day of the Sick at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip, N.Y., Feb. 11, 2021. Hospital chaplains have had to adhere to COVID-19 protocols while offering pastoral care during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
Chaplains: Ministers of Hope

ed by Alan Hilliard, with a foreword by Bishop Eamonn Walsh (Messenger Publications, €19.95/£18.95)

Unheard Voices: Reflections of a prison chaplain

by Imelda Wickham PBVM, foreword by Peter McVerry SJ (Messenger Publications, €12.95/£11.95)

Our attitudes to chaplains may well depend on our own experiences. One of my brothers, who lived in London, had an unfortunate accident in the hospital where he was being treated. A tracheotomy lead to him losing his power of speech, which he never recovered. In this traumatic situation, I suggested that he would – I knew – like to see a priest not for the last rites but for pastoral care. But, I was told by the management that this was not possible as he had not requested it. Now as he was immobilised and speechless this was impossible. It was an instance where the notions of management (often ruled by legal rather than humane consideration) seemed bizarre.

That was in London. A few years later my wife was in hospital here in Dublin in a semi-private room (which she preferred to a private room) because there was always company. The local rector came in one day to bring (as I recall) the Sacrament to one of his flock. He talked to the other patients too, and offered them all an individual blessing, happily accepted.


Clearly here in Ireland we do things differently. But there are still problems. These days it is not visiting patients on the wards that poses problems but in the emergency department, where matters have become all the more complex due to Covid-19 overcrowding.

As chance would have it the same publisher has also recently brought out a book on the experiences of a prison chaplain.

More recently I have been attending the Blackrock Clinic as an outpatient. In the foyer, at the entrance to the spiritual space, there was a small memorial to a former chaplain, Gerry Byrne, one of Ireland’s long-standing chaplains.

The articles in this first volume have been commissioned by Fr Alan Hilliard, who is the co-ordinator of pastoral care at the Technological University, Dublin (TUD). These contributions are devoted to what he calls “a number of theoretical frameworks supporting the inspiring work of chaplains”. A book for professionals then, but this is work we all benefit from.

This book came into my mind immediately when the latest report by the Inspector of Mental Health Services Dr Susan Finnerty – who under the Mental Health Act has to review a sector of mental health services in the State – was published. This year she chose to look at the criminal justice system. This too provides a vivid account of the context in which some chaplains work.

While her report may also be specialised reading, as in some respect is Alan Hilliard compilation. If we do not actually read them, we all need to be alerted to what they are saying.

The highly-literate sort of people who read the pages of this newspaper should keep such things in mind.


But mental health in prison is one aspect of prison management. Literacy levels is another, so helping prisoners with the ability to read and hence to function as citizens (for they are citizens) when they are released is vital. All too often illiteracy lies at the roots of many social problems.

Those who work in all the contexts of chaplaincy and social aid deserve our support, for all too often what problems arise do so out of administrative neglect, as with my brother. With Christmas coming up, some of these issues deserve to be kept in mind while people find themselves bothered by all the burdens of mere commercial pressure at this time of year, they should keep in mind that other people have far worse problems.