Nepean Hospital Chaplain Michael Turner’s work day starts with prayer, gathered together with the other members of the chaplaincy team – a few quiet moments, grounding them in faith as they head into the life of the busy hospital, with all of its many facets of humanity.
Michael is employed by CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains to be chaplain at the Penrith-based hospital, and is part of an ecumenical and interfaith faith team of chaplains.
“Our day starts with gathering for prayer and reflection,” he says.
“This helps remind us that we are in the hospital as God’s representatives. We are just channels of His grace.
“We have 10 minutes of prayer and reflection before we head out onto the wards and basically we just go bed to bed, popping our head in, introducing ourselves and asking if the patient would like a visit.
“It’s just an offer. If they say they’d like a visit, we stay and visit with them, if they say they don’t, we’ll move on.”
In his 12 months on the job, Michael’s learned not to take it personally if the patient declines his offer of a visit.
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“You learn very quickly that it’s not about you,” he says. “Often it can just mean that they are already well-supported, or they’re tired, or they’ve got family coming.
“It’s very important we respect them by offering a listening ear, but not forcing it.”
Michael hasn’t always been a chaplain. His work history includes some time in the seminary of the Capuchin Franciscans, as well as being a nurse, police officer, youth worker and disability worker, but he says his faith led him to where he is today.
“I’ve always had a strong faith, all my life,” he says.
“And it occurred to me about five or six years ago that if I don’t get some qualifications on paper regarding my faith, I’ll be working in fields that I don’t mind, but that I’m not passionate about.
“So, I decided I would undertake a Bachelor Degree in Theology with the intention of teaching the faith in Catholic schools.”
Michael completed his Degree through the University of Newcastle and the Broken Bay Institute with such distinction that he was awarded the University Medal.
“That was a great surprise to me and I was very happy about it,” he says.
As he progressed through the Degree, he began to realise he might not be suited to working with youth in schools and began to look for another way to put his studies into practice.
“I thought about possibly working in either a prison or a hospital and then one day my wife noticed the ad for the chaplaincy position at Nepean Hospital,” he says.
After applying for the position and completing his Clinical Pastoral Experience requirements at Westmead Hospital, Michael took up the chaplaincy job at Nepean.
Despite having earned his Theology Degree, Michael says there is actually not much need for formal theology in the day to day life of a hospital chaplain.
“It’s actually a very important part of what we do here that we leave our theology at the door,” he says.
“Our pastoral care approach is based on imagining that whoever we’re dealing with is in a pit and the depth of that pit varies, but what we don’t do is stand at the edge of the pit and call down platitudes.
“We jump in the pit with them and we empathise with them.
“I’ve had to learn not to try and solve all their problems and come up with solutions, but just to be with them in whatever situation they’re in.
“I’ve come to see that this approach provides comfort. It just does. And in some cases, there is even a transformation of the soul.”
Michael says that the vulnerability of being in hospital can sometimes bring to the surface pre-existing emotional hurts or sadness for patients.
“Sometimes, you find that they’ve carried these tragic stories around with them for decades,” he says.
“But in other cases, they might just want to talk about their golf game. You never know what you’re going to get and what their ultimate concern might be.”
The chaplaincy team also provides meaningful rituals for people who are experiencing loss or grief, such as a naming ceremony if a couple has lost a baby.
In essence, Michael sees hospital chaplaincy as a ministry of presence.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be heard in a space where you feel safe,” he says.
“And it’s an amazing privilege that people can trust us with their story.
“That trust all centres around the approach we are trained to use, which is a person-centred, non-judgmental approach.”
Michael says there is a strong emphasis on professional supervision in chaplaincy work to ensure that chaplains’ emotions are being processed in a healthy way and that ‘compassion fatigue’ doesn’t result in burn-out.
“I thought that as a former police officer I wouldn’t need the professional supervision,” he says. “I was wrong. It’s been a really wonderful thing.
“It’s a very reflective process which is essential to longevity in this game.
“I also strive to keep balance in life, between work and family, friendship and fun, and I make it a priority to maintain a sacramental prayer life.”
At just 52, Michael is among the younger faces on the hospital chaplaincy team and he’s hoping to remain in chaplaincy for the next 20 years or so.
“It’s extremely fulfilling work,” he says. “It’s a real privilege to be allowed to walk with people at these moments in their life and sometimes, through our being there, some kind of transformation takes place – small or large – and to witness that is something special.”
CatholicCare Western Sydney and the Blue Mountains
CatholicCare chaplains work in the public hospitals in Western Sydney to provide emotional, spiritual and sacramental support to patients, their families and staff. For more information about chaplaincy contact Trish Hickey on (02) 8843 2514.
For more information about other CatholicCare services, visit www.ccss.org.au.