Theology and Ministry

Church teaching directly influences, inspires pastoral work

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Some time ago I was chatting with a brother deacon involved in hospital ministry. As he explained the ins and outs of chaplaincy, he made a rather broad statement that struck me as quite odd. He said, “The Church’s teachings don’t always work pastorally in a clinical setting.” When I pressed him to explain, he said that, practically speaking, theology doesn’t make sense when we’re dealing with a terminally ill patient or a grieving widow, and it’s the circumstances that govern how we minister.

In some respects, my brother is correct. The pastoral situation demands that we consider the circumstances and the persons involved. However, I would take issue that the relationship between theology and pastoral practice is separate. I would argue that what gives ministry its distinctively Catholic characteristic is our theology. Pastoral practice is nothing less than a practical application of our deeply held beliefs, and these beliefs are expressed theologically.

Theology drives what we say and do, often in subtle and indirect ways. It enables us to reveal Christ from those with a vibrant faith to those with no faith at all. To omit this critical element in pastoral ministry is to weaken our integrity as ministers of the Church and diminish our witness. Integrity necessitates that if we’re to remain faithful to Christ and to his Church, we must act in accord with what we hold to be sacred.

This is not at all to suggest that upon entering a hospital room we break open the Catechism. There’s a time and place for all things. That said, in more than 30 years of ministry I’ve yet to find a situation where theology didn’t inform my pastoral practice. The challenge arises in applying Church teaching in a charitable and prudential way without diminishing its essence. Sometimes this may even mean delaying a conversation until emotions settle.

I recall receiving word from a hospital that a man who was already clinically dead would be removed from life support, and his wife was requesting a Catholic presence. The man already had been anointed the day before, so I was assigned by the pastor to respond. After I entered the room and introduced myself, the wife put her arm around me, and we both leaned over her dying husband. After a brief prayer, the respiratory technician pulled the tube, and the man began to gasp. In an attempt to comfort her husband’s passing, she said, “Go to the light. Go to our horses and green fields” (a reference to their ranch).

While the theologian in me shuddered a bit, this was neither the time nor the place to take up the question of the final disposition of animal souls and man’s particular judgment. This isn’t to deny the relevancy of these topics; instead it’s to appreciate the appropriateness of such an observation within this context. The best I could do is accompany the wife through his passing, establish a relationship and leaving open the possibility that Our Lord may create a future opportunity to address these issues. Moreover, in that particular situation, I quickly realized that, in a certain sense, she was saying what the Church taught as she understood it. This was heaven for her, explained in the only words she knew. A more refined sense would have to come, but it could wait.

Thus critical to authentic Catholic pastoral practice, whether in hospital ministry or indeed any other ministry, is a firm grounding in the theological tradition. This tradition, if it’s to be effective, must be interiorly appropriated by the deacon and prudentially applied in a particular situation.

DEACON DOMINIC CERRATO, Ph.D., is editor of Deacon Digest and the director of diaconal formation for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. He is founder of Diaconal Ministries, where he gives national presentations and retreats to deacons and diaconal candidates. Follow him on Facebook to continue the conversation.

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