In this year’s message for World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis spoke of the ‘dignity’ of health care workers, saying that their service to the sick transcends the bounds of their profession and ‘becomes a mission’. ‘Your hands’, Pope Francis wrote, ‘which touch the suffering flesh of Christ, can be a sign of the merciful hands of the Father.’
These words are particularly significant to Dr Mary McInerney who is the Senior Manager of Pastoral Care Services at Villa Maria Catholic Homes (VMCH. In this role, Mary manages and supports a team of 18 pastoral care workers who themselves provide love and support to residents living across 12 aged-care sites in Victoria, plus one staff member who provides outreach support in an affordable housing setting. Together with her team, Mary can be found on-site being a presence of love and support to those in need, as well as to those in her team, ‘the care-givers’.
‘My team is really important to me,’ said Mary, ‘My main role is to support the wellbeing of each of my team members who care for our aged care residents and to support them on site too. I’m not just a manager; I also go on site and participate in the hands-on work with our residents. It’s important that we’re a team working together in pastoral care.’
Mary explained that residential aged care is ‘providing for the person’s holistic wellbeing, with the provision of pastoral care focussing on spiritual and emotional wellbeing’. The team works in a multi-disciplinary way, with everyone supporting those who are transitioning into aged care, or who may be suffering from memory loss and dementia, and those who need palliative care and end-of-life care. The pastoral care team also provides sacramental support to the residents, but at the heart of their ministry, according to Mary, is the ‘quality of presence’.
‘It’s very much about being attentive to the other person and what’s happening in their life,’ she said. ‘We bring a quality of presence, and we bring a quality of care. We also bring a sense of God’s presence in each of us to the other. It’s important that our residents are really known and heard and that we respect them no matter what they’re going through, and no matter their faith. They are all included in our care. Even when they’re dying, we can be there with the families and loved ones. We don’t have to say much – it might just be a touch or a look. We can stand there silently, and we’re still present.’
Reflecting on Pope Francis’ message for World Day of the Sick, Mary said she found his words ‘really moving’. ‘The part that I really loved were his words, “even when healing is not possible, care can be given”. It’s true. It’s always possible to console, to help people get a sense of closeness and to know that they matter.
For those who are unwell or sick or becoming elderly, suffering can be a real struggle at times, and it can be a time of uncertainty, but I really believe that sometimes chronic illness and chronic pain, though we don’t know what another might be enduring, is an opportunity to accompany another. We can always give care and be present to another.
‘My Christian faith comes into that, too,’ Mary said. ‘I believe from the resurrection of Christ that we can draw on that hope; that even in the horrible pain and suffering, God and the Holy Spirit gives us life and hope. Even though it might feel like we’re alone at times, we’re not.
‘Pope Francis also spoke of “God’s mercy”, that “He unceasingly desires to give us new life in his Holy Spirit”. God is rich in mercy, and He always wants to grow closer to us, even in the horrible pain.’
Mary explained that the past two years have been particularly challenging for the pastoral care team as they dealt with the impact of COVID-19. ‘The staff have been really called on to respond and give more of themselves and their time particularly when loved ones have not been able to be with family members during restricted times,’ she said. ‘People have been a bit more isolated. So, during that, we’ve tried to continue to be present to our residents by nourishing their spirit in different ways, whether it be by giving them lovely little packs of goodies or things like that, or especially being present.’
The team also implemented innovative ways for meaningful connection among the residents during COVID restrictions. A small group was gathered at VMCH Bundoora while at the same time another group gathered at Star of the Sea in Torquay. Connected by Zoom, the two groups were given the opportunity to meet one another online and to share their stories. ‘They’d never done that before,’ said Mary, ‘so it was quite exciting using the technology in this way, and it provided them an opportunity to share what was important to them and a bit of their story. It was really beautiful.’
Though difficult and sad, moments of beauty and compassion can also be experienced at times of a resident’s death. Mary explained that experiencing loss and grief is part of the role, given the deep connections made with residents during their stay.
I know that they’re at peace with God, but at the same time, it’s a loss, so there’s grief too. We’ve both had an impact on each other’s lives and the family too.’
Taking stock of those moments, Mary might go for a walk or burn a candle in memory of the person who has died and say a prayer. Where possible, the pastoral care staff will attend the funeral and they also coordinate special memorials for the deceased person to provide a ritual to remember. ‘The memorials are a time to remember,’ said Mary, ‘and the staff put so much effort into them and do them so beautifully.’
In those times when COVID prevented families from gathering at the memorial service, the pastoral care team created a memorial wall with the families, which included a photo of the deceased loved one, and a story written by the family members. ‘We’d let them know that on this particular day and time we’d be remembering their loved ones and would invite them to light a candle at home, or put on some music, or say a prayer at the same time so that we’re united in remembering.’
Drawing on Pope Francis’ words of encouragement, and echoing his sentiments, Mary said that the call to care for others isn’t reserved for pastoral care practitioners.
‘We are all called to be pastoral, to be caring,’ she said. ‘Pastoral care practitioners have been trained and have a specific role, but we are all called to respect the dignity of each person, to welcome each person, to be attentive, to be inclusive, and to really know that person.
This article was initially published in Melbourne Catholic (melbournecatholic.org) and is reproduced with permission. Photos courtesy VMCH and Dr Mary McInerney.