The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston will provide hospital and nursing home patients and prison inmates with easier access to spiritual guidance by training hundreds of volunteers who will work under the supervision of priests and chaplains.
A pilot program initially will focus on attending to the needs of Catholic patients at Baylor St. Luke's Health and Texas Children's Hospital in the Texas Medical Center.
But as the archdiocese expands the program, about 300 "pastoral visitors" will help patients in other medical center hospitals, hospitals in Houston's suburbs, including The Woodlands, Kingwood and Sugar Land, area nursing homes and prisons.
The archdiocese and St. Luke's Health, which became a Catholic hospital in 2013 when CHI bought St. Luke's Episcopal Health System, have launched the pastoral volunteer project because overburdened priests cannot meet the ministry needs of hospital and nursing home patients.
In assessing when people seek spiritual guidance, the archdiocese concluded that they often request a priest while in the hospital, nursing homes and prisons. The archdiocese lacks enough priests - in part due to a shortage of priests nationwide - to staff all these settings. In addition, hospital ministry demands sensitivity - priests need time to listen to sick patients and the elderly and develop a rapport.
The archdiocese has added two full-time Catholic chaplains who will serve St. Luke's Health and Texas Children's Hospital. Another four Catholic chaplains will be added to staff the other primary Texas Medical Center hospitals. The chaplains will oversee the work of hundreds of pastoral volunteers.
St. Luke's Health awarded the archdiocese a $938,000 grant to pay for the chaplains and to train pastoral visitors.
Since the two chaplains started working at St. Luke's and Texas Children's in February, an additional 100 patients who would not have received Catholic pastoral guidance were seen at the two hospitals, said Denise Foose, who trains pastoral visitors for the archdiocese.
Before the program started, the Rev. Rodolfo Cal-Ortiz, the priest serving St. Luke's Health, was called out sometimes a dozen times a month in the wee hours to perform the anointing of the sick - a Catholic sacramental ritual. He was getting worn out.
The Rev. Ted Smith, who as director of mission integration at St. Luke's oversees the hospital's religious programs, said, "It's too much. If you have 150 patients and you are trying to provide them with their sacramental needs and pastoral needs, it's just not sustainable."
Foose said, "By the time priests meet the sacramental needs of patients, they do not have much time to do the pastoral piece."
Since February, Deacon Bill Wilson, a chaplain added to St. Luke's staff as part of the project, meets with patients in the day or fields calls at night and assesses whether Father Cal-Ortiz needs to be brought in during the middle of the night. More than half the time, he said, he decides otherwise.
At St. Luke's about a quarter of the patients are Catholic. In the archdiocese, which includes 10 counties, Catholics also make up a quarter of the population.
The archdiocese is training pastoral visitors at St. Mary's Seminary and in The Woodlands, Kingwood and Sugar Land. About 200 pastoral visitors will be trained by May.
Training varies from 15 hours to two years. Only pastoral visitors who have received extensive training will minister to intensive care patients, Foose said.
Pastoral visitors slated to volunteer in prisons receive specialized training, and hospital volunteers are prepared to meet the needs of patients who may be dying or at risk of death.
"People become much more aware of their own finitude" when they are admitted to hospitals, said Rev. Smith. "They become more conscious of it. They have somebody who is trained to make empathic connections with them."
Pastoral visitors in the two-year program take theology courses at St. Mary's Seminary, learning how to weave theological lessons into pastoral guidance, Foose said.
Turnover is high when pastoral visitors are not well-trained. "But when people are trained to do this," she said, "the attrition is extremely low."
Smith, a Methodist, said St. Luke's continues to meet the spiritual needs of all faiths and respects all faiths. Near the hospital's Catholic chapel, the hospital has built a room for Muslims to worship.
So many Muslims attend a Friday afternoon service at the hospital that a second service will soon be added.