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Photo: Courtesy of St. Joseph’s Hospital, Syracuse, N.Y.

Pictured here: Part of the “mission integration” staff at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Director of spiritual services, Sr. Rose Ann Renna, OSF, is seated first on the left in the front row. The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities run the hospital according to the Franciscan understanding of mercy: “that everything and everyone is connected.”

Instruments of His Peace

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By Dan Valenti (Jan 17, 2012)
It's shortly before Christmas in the lobby of St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, N.Y. Visitors, staff, and others come and go. Each visits the hospital with a sense of purpose. A hospital is one locale one approached only in need.

There's never a good time to be in a hospital, but at Christmas, the feelings of sickness and lack of health can play acutely on one's psyche. Speaking of playing, in the bustling lobby, the St. Joseph's maintenance staff jostles a piano in place, to the right of the reception desk. On the wall behind the desk, you read the hospital's mission statement: "We are passionate healers dedicated to honoring the Sacred in our sisters and brothers." Sister Rose Ann Renna, OSF, appears from her nearby office. She takes charge.

Sister Rose Ann is director of mission integration at the hospital. That's her official title, but she's not much for "official" titles. In plain English, Sr. Rose Ann manages and directs spiritual care at the 431-bed health center, which services residents of 16 counties in central New York state.

"Here," she says to the workers. "To the right a little more. A little more. A little more. Perfect!" Sister Rose Ann then starts playing "Silent Night," and an impromptu choir breaks into the beloved song, singing the first verse. Several doctors and nurses who happen to be walking by stop and join in: It reminds one of a family gathering more than people at work.

Franciscan Spirituality: Drenched in God's Mercy
Sister Rose Ann lives her Franciscan spirituality in a way that will be familiar to those who know and live the message of Divine Mercy. She directs the chaplains who work at the hospital, visits patients and their families, provides orientation to new employees in the hospital's holistic healing mission, and does anything else that enables her to extend mercy, compassion, and goodness to others — such as piano playing.

Example: Just prior to our interview, Sr. Rose Ann had been busy spending an hour distributing Christmas gifts to employees who might otherwise not be able to do that for their children.

"This economy has been difficult on many of our employees," she said. "Even with full-time work, many are struggling just to stay ahead of their day-to-day responsibilities. Christmas presents aren't always possible."

In the everyday sense, Sr. Rose Ann and the St. Joseph's chaplains tread daily where others cannot or do not wish to go: Meeting people in their sick beds. Too many of us find these encounters awkward: What do we say? How do we act? How do you offer encouragement without false hope?

"When someone gets sick and ends up in the hospital," Sr. Rose Ann says, "it's an opportunity to slow down and take stock of their lives. For many patients, a hospital stay is the time to do that." As she puts it in the colloquial "you": "You might want to start thinking about God."

Sister Rose Ann interacts with most everyone she meets — staffers, patients, visitors — with a smile. She delivers her words with kind eyes that beam with Franciscan love ("O Lord, let me be an instrument of Your peace").

The 'Law of Mercy': Givers, in Giving, Receive More in Return
When you talk to ministers of the sick, a universal, unwritten "Law of Mercy" gets mentioned: Those that give receive even more in return.

"Being stuck in a hospital bed ... well, there's no need to say too much more," says chaplain Mary Gregory. "It's not easy. When I visit a patient, I try to be present to their needs," which, she says, can be spiritual, emotional, psychological, and physical.

"The best gift I can give is my presence and my support. A visit to a patient is the opportunity for a direct, human contact. With the fast pace of life today, many people are starving for that. Being with [patients] teaches me so much. It gives me a deeper understanding of how God's mercy works. It always comes back to us when we give it to others. Always."

Chaplain Joy Magee agrees: "Patients give me strength and unconditional love. It seems much more than what I bring to them."

Sister Alice Dunlop, OSF, says patients "do not always want spiritual care. Some are closed to it completely. We don't make any assumptions on what people might need, spiritually. Each of us does our best to listen, listen, and listen." We must minister to all, and more so to those who need it most."

Asked how she ministers to the "hard cases," Sr. Alice says, "I show up. I'm there for them, even if they don't accept it. I leave the 'heavy lifting' to God. Maybe that little encounter, where I simply smiled and respected the person's wishes to be left alone, might be enough to get them to reflect on it later. Maybe it helped them just a little. God only knows, but I'm sure it occurs a lot. There's lots of down time in a hospital bed, you know," she says with a smile.

'Mercy, within Mercy, within Mercy'
Sister Alice knows about the message of Divine Mercy, and she puts it to use every day on the job. For instance, she says she purchased a copy of the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy on CD from the Marian Fathers gift catalog, and it finds heavy use throughout the hospital. "

She then shares Thomas Merton's reputed definition of God: "Mercy within mercy within mercy."

"We're His presence," Sr. Rose Ann. "[Saint] Francis calls everybody 'brother' and 'sister.' Franciscan spirituality is deeply about the privilege of giving mercy to others. It's a privilege to be with someone at those moments, especially when they need it the most [for example, during a time of sickness, sadness, even death]."

Saint Joseph's Hospital, with 19 sites throughout central New York, employs 800 at the main hub on Prospect Avenue in downtown Syracuse. From its humble beginnings — when five Sisters of St. Francis transformed a former dance hall into a 15-bed hospital — St. Joseph's grew into a comprehensive medical complex that has a hospital, a school of nursing, a psychiatric program, and a doctor's office building.

The St. Joseph's medical network serves about 23,000 in-patients and 548,000 outpatient encounters through a typical year, though for a hospital, no year — no day — is typical.

"In overseeing the spiritual direction [at the facility], I try to keep in mind a truly Franciscan idea: that although every person's situation is unique, everything and everyone is connected. That's how I understand the basics of God's infinite love and mercy for us."

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Sr. Baptiste Westbrook - Jan 18, 2012

Thanks for your excellent article highlighting the service of health-care chaplains. I thought you might be interested to know that among the folks in the photo of St. Joseph's Hospital's chaplains are two members of the team who work for St. Joseph's Home Care Agency. It is an inspiring initiative to offer spiritual care along with all the other disciplines to patients and caregives who face the challenges of health care in the home. Despite the reality that chaplains are not income-generators for the agency, their presence is a reflection of commitment to the mission of the St. Joseph's Network.