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Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Sharing enormous capacity to work, ‘hear of a servant’


Whence that old word chaplain? Most scholars first spotted it in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written about 1386. In “Richard III” in 1594, Shakespeare mentions “The Chaplaine of the Tower.” Milton in 1649 poses the very question that this supplement on ministry seeks to answer: “Bishops or Presbyters we know, and Deacons we know, but what are Chaplains?”

Jesuit Fr. Walter J. Smith, president of the HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York, said the term originated as a designation for a cleric appointed for personal ministry to a monarch or a nobleman who owned a chapel. By the early 18th century, Swift invoked “chaplain” in the familiar military sense: a clergyman attached to a regiment.

Fr. Charles McTague, chaplain to seafarers at the Port of Newark, traveled back even farther: “Of course Columbus had chaplains on his ships. But what of those scared apostles on the Sea of Galilee? Wasn’t Jesus himself the first chaplain?”

The model of one person caring for the spiritual needs of another -- in jail, in a hospital, away from home, at college, serving abroad -- who is in distress, is lonely or in emotional turmoil comes close to a definition of chaplain.

But today’s chaplains are not just kind souls who extend the hand of friendship and offer the balm of comfort. They are highly skilled professionals, trained in theology and often in pastoral counseling. They have volunteered in prisons and nursing homes, gained experience in parishes and among youth. Many are ordained, though increasingly lay people are choosing the profession.

One thing common to all chaplains featured on these pages is their enormous capacity and willingness to work. Many logged a 60-hour week. One nun said she spent 70 to 80 hours a week on the job, but “if you print that, they’ll think I’m a masochist.”

Perhaps Kim Reid, warden at Danbury Federal Correctional Institution, said it best: “You need the heart of a servant” to do the work of a chaplain.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000