By Pat Boduch, Mercy Volunteer Corps
The following reflection is a notable entry to our annual Volunteer Story & Photo Contest. Each year, we ask our member programs to submit stories and photos of their daily life to celebrate the experiences of faith-based service.
I breathe a prayer for God to give me the words and give me the silence. I knock twice on the door and enter the patient’s room. In those first couple of seconds, I try to orient myself, noticing the atmosphere – potentially tense, welcoming, or weary. I take note of the patient’s body language and facial expression, and other visitors in the room.
I step forward and place my hand on my chest saying slowly, “My name is Patrick and I’m a volunteer chaplain. I’m just here to see how you’re doing today.” I say this to let the patient know I don’t want anything from them – not to poke them with an IV or wheel them to a procedure. I’m not there to proselytize or preach. I’m simply there to say hi. And sitting there in the room is a patient. All I know before entering the room is the patient’s name and age. Everything else is waiting to be discovered. That’s the excitement and the fear of this position: not knowing anything about who I might be tasked with caring for or what their condition might be.
One patient is a Vietnam veteran who just had his leg amputated, with the stump plainly visible on top of the bedsheets. Another patient is a woman who doesn’t seem to notice I’m there but tortuously cries out again and again, “Where are you, Lucille?!” I visit with an obese man who tells me he’s scared of dying. There is another man with cerebral palsy who gleefully shows me the decals on his motorized chair. There is another woman who, after thirty minutes of conversation, tells me that her brother is dying and she just wants to get out of here to see him one last time.
I see an ICU patient on a ventilator, whose spouse decries, “I guess you’re not supposed to be happy in this life,” before asking me for prayers. I meet a patient’s sister who inquires about my vocational exploration, listens, and then tells me, “Whatever you decide will be right.” There is a patient who asks for communion, and after I go through the short service, says, “That was beautiful.” There is a man who tells me about his motorcycle business and later in the day receives news that he has a cancer diagnosis. There is a serene woman who comically states she knows exactly where she’s going at the end of her life, then points straight down. There is a nun of an order I don’t recognize who asks for a few minutes of silence together.
These patient visits are part of my work in the spiritual care department at Mercy Health hospital in Cincinnati, a placement with Mercy Volunteer Corps. The nature of this work is appealing to me partly because it’s a universal ministry. It recognizes everyone, regardless of their race, gender, age, economic status, or health condition, as a child of God, and therefore, it navigates through the same existential and pragmatic questions of what it means to be human. In that sense, health is the great leveler for all of us. In that hospital room, we all wear the same undignified hospital gown. We all hold within ourselves a unique mixture of fear and hope. And we all long to be home. In that exile and uncertainty, we need chaplains for some of the same reasons we need friends and family: someone to journey with us, to hear about our experiences, and to help us feel less alone.
This desire to help others feel less alone and more understood is a big reason why I signed up for a year of service in the first place. I wondered if it was just me, or if our world was becoming more socially fragmented, more individualistic, more distracted, and more vulnerable to psychological fragility. In contrast, a year of service seemed to represent the exact opposite, a salve for our modern life. Instead of a model for human flourishing that is consumerist and careerist, the tenets of Catholic Volunteer Network programs offer a model for human life that are holistic, communal, and balanced. In light of distraction and transience in our world, this is focused and committed. Instead of untethered individualism, this is rooted in a specific place with specific people. Instead of an achievement ethos, this has a spirit of servitude and humility. In essence, I believe the programs of the Catholic Volunteer Network offer an orientation that our world so deeply needs.
A year ago, when I was scrolling through the RESPONSE book, I felt an urgent desire to orient myself in this way. Perhaps you, discerning a year (or more) of volunteer service, desire something similar. And perhaps you’ll find, as I am now that I am wrapping up my year of service, no definitive answers or perfect clarity on who you are or how you’re called to serve in the world. There may not be any definitive answers. Instead, I expect you’ll find, as I have, a deepened and solidified desire to create a life for yourself that gives honor to that which first drew you to a life of service. The clarity then may come from knowing better how to live that out. My hope for you is that you will have the freedom and the support to properly explore this and other possibilities. And as you discern, I hope you will find peace in what a patient’s family member once told me: “Whatever you decide, will be right.”
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