Healthcare Chaplaincy: a contemporary Irish perspective

Care for and ministry with those who are ill are core gospel values underpinning pastoral ministry both in healthcare institutions and in the community. Inspired by the ministry of Jesus Christ, churches have always placed a particular emphasis on care for those who are sick.

Care for and ministry with those who are ill are core gospel values underpinning pastoral ministry both in healthcare institutions and in the community. Inspired by the ministry of Jesus Christ, churches have always placed a particular emphasis on care for those who are sick.

In the ancient world when little was known about the human body or medicine, the onset of disease was often ascribed to supernatural or divine power or threat. Historically, churches and religious orders were often the main providers of healthcare and at the forefront of establishing hospitals in the absence of any structured civic provision of healthcare.

The establishment of hospitals was also part of a “social gospel” of outreach and support for those who were socially disadvantaged or marginalised. The religious ethos of these facilities coupled with the particular charisms of individual religious orders has meant that from their beginnings healthcare facilities have been conscious of the place of faith in the overall wellbeing of patients, whether they were recovering or facing death. It can be argued that pastoral care was considered a ‘given’ and integrated into the everyday fabric of hospital life in these circumstances, since religious personnel were intricately involved in both the provision of care and the governance of hospitals. Over time, as hospitals became more established, ordained clergy were appointed as chaplains to provide for the sacramental and religious needs of patients during illness and in preparation for death.

Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and Chaplaincy Education 

As healthcare continued to develop and mature so too did the provision of chaplaincy and the training of hospital chaplains. In the early 1930s in the United States of America it was recognised by Anton Boisen, following his own personal experience of mental illness, that clergy providing pastoral care in hospitals were not adequately trained for their task following their seminary education. Boisen introduced pastoral ministers to the “living human document” and the discipline of robust reflection on ministry and the integration of new insights for future ministry in a supervised environment. Students and supervisor explored together the dynamics, patterns of relating and self-awareness of the student chaplain in ministry. This new mode of ministerial formation highlighted the importance of the development of pastoral ministers personally, pastorally and professionally to equip them in their ministry amongst those who were ill. Building on this approach, Richard Cabot and William Keller introduced the elements of clinical skills and personal professional supervision respectively to create what was to become Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).

CPE was introduced to Ireland in the 1980s as a core component of healthcare chaplaincy training and like many other countries such as Australia, Canada, USA and New Zealand it has remained the prime methodology for healthcare chaplaincy training and professional accreditation ever since.

As is the case of all churches in Ireland, CPE in Ireland is provided on an all-island basis, working in both jurisdictions. The standards of healthcare pastoral education in Ireland with a dedicated focus on the personal, pastoral and professional development of the chaplain, are maintained by the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education Ireland (ACPE Irl) in accordance with the international CPE movement.