The Malta Independent 17 June 2024, Monday
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We are here to give a service – Mater Dei chaplaincy team

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 4 June 2023, 07:30 Last update: about 2 years ago

In the bustling and emotionally charged environment of a hospital, where patients and their loved ones navigate the challenges of illness, injury and uncertainty, a guiding light emerges to offer solace and spiritual support.

At the heart of this comforting presence stands the Mater Dei chaplaincy team, a dedicated group of individuals driven by compassion and faith.

“We are here to give a service,” said the team coordinator Fr Rene Camilleri, in an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday.

The team now consists of Fr Louis Farrugia, Fr Reuben Vella, Fr Reuben Deguara and Fr Camilleri. They were appointed by Archbishop Charles Scicluna last March to continue providing 24-hour pastoral support from Monday to Sunday at Mater Dei Hospital.

The priest said that he had just retired after 36 years of teaching theology at the University of Malta, when he received the call asking for him to fill the position.

“I enjoy it,” he said, despite it being a hospital setting. “For me it is very positive as it gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

He said that the type of situations in the hospital vary from one day to the other, as people from the hospital are coming and going; some of them come for treatment which requires a hospital stay of a few days, while others stay a little longer.

“Sometimes it is not easy to deal with it. It can be stressful,” he said.

The service, for many years, used to be provided by Capuchin friars, but earlier this year they passed on the responsibility for the pastoral work carried out at Mater Dei Hospital to the Archdiocese of Malta.

Fr Camilleri said that now the shifts are better scheduled, as for example when he is on day duty, his hours of services typically start at 7am and finish at 7pm, following which he goes home and rests.

“It is important to keep hobbies, such as reading and watching movies because you need to unwind,” he said, adding that some days can be emotionally heavy.

The hospital chaplaincy is responsible for the pastoral ministry of patients and their relatives. These priests administer Holy Communion to patients who would like to receive the Eucharist. Patients or their relatives are encouraged to inform the ward nurses that the patient would like to receive this sacrament.

Mentioning some of the situations they encounter, Camilleri said that apart from being there for the patients who are sick or are on their death bed, they also serve as a support system for their relatives.

In terms of emotional intensity, he said that when supporting families “it is different when a person dies in their 30s or 40s, when compared to a 95-year-old”, adding that although the age does not remove the impact a person has left in their life, the younger the deceased person is, the harder it is on the relatives.

Fr Camilleri said that there is a lot of synergy between the chaplaincy and the hospital staff, which creates a welcoming atmosphere. He said that in order for the team to be able to provide the best service they can, they are surrounded by a team of professionals at Mater Dei, such as a psychologist and councillors.

In return, it is not the first time that the chaplaincy team helps staff members themselves, either to give out advice or to lead them spiritually.


Challenges faces by the Chaplaincy

“Today the culture in Malta has changed a lot,” he said. Nowadays there are many patients who do not endorse the Catholic religion. They come from a different religious background and some others are also non-believers.

However, he does not let this discourage him, and whenever hospital staff calls for him, he ensures that the person to receive his advice is in the know that he is a Catholic priest “because we need to respect their liberty of choice”.

Asked about whether he had ever encountered any patients who did not wish to speak to him, Camilleri said that this has rarely happened.

However, “even self-confessed non-believers have asked for my presence”.

On other occasions where the person is of a different religion, the priest contacts a representative from the religion in question.

However, Fr Camilleri stressed the need for the hospital staff to contact a priest because “it is their obligation to do so”.

He went on to recount how in the past, before his time at the hospital chaplaincy, there were families who took the hospital to court when a priest was not present to give the Last Rites to a patient who was dying.

“They (the family before the court) would ask how come there was no priest present since the hospital staff knew that their relative was dying,” he said.

Camilleri still frequents lectures on how to improve the workings of the chaplaincy. He said he forms part of the European network for hospital chaplains, which holds conferences that are attended by some 96 hospital chaplains from all over Europe.

He said that out of the 96 hospital chaplains, only nine are catholic, as the rest come from several other different religions.

Asked about what would happen if a representative of another religion is also permanently present at Mater Dei Hospital, Fr Camilleri said that this will not change the dynamics.

“In a hospital context, whatever religion or faith you represent does not matter, but empathy, as at the end of the day it is an essential skill needed to talk with patients who are ill,” he said.

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