One of the most profound programs to help me prepare for my priesthood ordination was enrolling in a Clinical Pastoral Experience, commonly called CPE. I studied for 11 weeks in the summer of 1981 at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. I was one of seven clerics and seminarians to study with the Rev. Glendon Jantzi, a remarkable chaplain and facilitator. He was raised Mennonite and went full circle to become a United Church of Christ minister. His approach was simple: Mine the meaning behind life’s daily experiences.
Each of us was assigned four units in the hospital along with rotating stints in Bellevue’s famed emergency room. Each day one of us would present a verbatim — a reconstructed dialogue with a patient — in the hope that the group would help us focus on what we did well and how we could improve.
While the setting was a hospital, the skills acquired were intended to help us become better pastoral ministers. I so enjoyed the CPE experience that I signed up for another unit, the following summer. I felt more comfortable afterward ministering to people in hospitals when they are most vulnerable. I learned to be a better listener so the patient knows I hear him or her and then can help them navigate some of the personal matters they are struggling with.
I early on learned first hand what a Harvard study recently concluded: Spirituality is linked with better health outcomes and patient care.
“Spirituality should be incorporated into care for both serious illness and overall health,” according to the study led by researchers Tracy Balboni, Tyler VanderWeele, and Howard Koh at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Nicole Rura, from the Harvard Chan School of Communications, reported in the The Harvard Gazette’s online story announcing the results that the researchers systematically identified and analyzed the highest quality evidence on spirituality in serious illness and health published between January 2000 and April 2022. Reviewing thousands of articles revealed that spirituality is “the way individuals seek ultimate meaning, purpose, connection, value or transcendence.”
Almost all local hospitals have some configuration of pastoral care chaplains and laypeople to visit and counsel patients.
“If you include pastoral support for patients, they make better decisions for end of life and quality of life,” said Ann Logan, who led CarePoint Health Hoboken University Medical Center for eight years as its Chief Hospital Executive. She’s now the executive liaison for the corporate CarePoint CEO and holds a doctorate in health care administration. She has worked in health care for 43 years.
“There is a positive impact when you have spiritual clergy support respecting their (patients) values and demonstrated improvement in quality of care,” she said.
Patients and their families concur.
Hoboken resident Maureen Fontenot works at St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic, where her mother, Pauline Gaeta, and her husband, Hillery Fontenot — now both deceased — had been hospitalized many times over the last decade.
After her mother received Communion daily when in the hospital, she recalled her mother saying, “It gives me the strength each day to feel better.”
Fontenot’s husband, a deeply spiritual man, died earlier this year and had been happy to be able to talk to the chaplain there daily, she said.
Pamela Pater-Ennis is a pastoral psychotherapist and executive director at the Hudson River Care & Counseling in Hoboken and Englewood. She is also a licensed social worker and on the pastoral care and counseling faculty of New Brunswick Theological Seminary. She sees outpatients regularly while also being an ordained minister in the Reformed Church. Some of her clients have sexual trauma and religious trauma — “hurt by people in the church.” At some point, she said, they need hope and she believes “you can get better if you believe in God or a higher power.”
Pater-Ennis typically does not disclose her ordained status — lest the client think she has a religious motive — unless a client asks and doesn’t normally pray with her clients unless someone requests it. But she believes she can bridge the worlds of medicine and religion and make the connection between mind, body and spirit.
Episcopal Deacon Marjorie Boyd-Edmonds sees that every day visiting patients at Hoboken University Medical Center for 21 years now. She believes a chaplain’s presence means that “God is ever-present (to the patients).” She knows that when you encounter patients feeling most vulnerable, they begin to reconcile their lives of faith. Some will admit they are lapsed in their religion and no longer go to church.
“It’s important to walk with them, to journey with them,” she said.
Jersey City Medical Center is an outlier among hospitals in our area with no paid chaplains or pastoral care of any denomination. Cooperman Barnabas in Livingston, part of the RW Barnabas system like the JCMC, employs one Catholic priest, one Catholic nun, one rabbi paid for by a Jewish organization and a Protestant chaplain, who also directs the pastoral care office, paid by a special board.
The Rev. Bryan Page, pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa, Jersey City, concluded that the JCMC “seems to lack any clear system or protocol for notifying or contacting clergy when they are needed, even in emergencies.”
No one at the JCMC would return multiple calls but a spokesman from the Barnabas system did say they have volunteer lay people from different denominations who could provide pastoral care. He only mentioned one by name and did not disclose what religious denominations the others represented. The Downtown Catholic pastors are not only concerned Catholics are being neglected but other patients’ religious needs as well.
Harvard researcher Koh concluded: “Overlooking spirituality leaves patients feeling disconnected from the health care system and the clinicians trying to care for them.” And that leaves patients stranded at the Jersey City Medical Center.
The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @padrehoboken.