From the pulpits across the diocese of Oakland on Sept. 9 and 10, Catholics will hear from priests and deacons about an initiative launching: Catholics Care.
Through the California Catholic Conference, parishioners throughout the state will be engaging in these efforts. The annual Respect Life gathering, which will be held Sept. 16 in Oakland, will feature a keynote address by Ned Dolejsi, executive director of the conference, on statewide initiatives.
Locally, the initiative leaders will launch a website offering additional information for those who seek, and those who give, care.
A committee of parishioners, many of them professionals in the health care field, has been looking at ways to help spread the message. The committee began meeting in April.
The effort is across the life spectrum, including physical, mental and spiritual care. It seeks to answer the question: How can we better accompany people in their life journey?
The concept of accompaniment is critical. Rev. Stephan Kappler, pastor of St. Jarlath Church in Oakland, is also a psychologist at Kairos Psychology group in Oakland.
"There is a tendency these days to act as if human frailty, human suffering and pain that comes with it," he said, "there's no space for that. We act as if that can be fully controlled and eliminated from our lives. That is not true."
Think of the wide gate and the narrow gate, he suggested.
"The narrow gate in this sense is to accompany people through their times of distress, through their times of pain, through their times of suffering, to do everything we can to make sure people are in the company of loved ones, that they are cared for, that they receive compassion, all the care that's there, especially knowing that God loves them and is with them every step of the way," he said.
That's the essence of what Catholics do, Father Kappler said. "That's what compassionate Catholic care is. We accompany each other in times of grief and pain and loss."
That's difficult, he said.
"It's being able to accompany people in their worst days and to be there with compassion, not with judgment, not with easy solutions, sometimes not even knowing what to say or what to do," Father Kappler said. "All that's necessary is to be there."
Among those who are there for others is the Healing the Heart ministry at St. Bonaventure Church in Concord, where twice a year, six-week sessions are offered. There's also a one-night session. There are 80 to 90 funerals a year in the parish.
"We've had as many as 15 or 20 people," said Dick Collyer, who participates in the ministry for those who grieve. Sometimes, though, the ministers outnumber those they serve.
"You know how many aren't there," he said.
"Women outnumber men, 10-1. Men don't come. They may come with their spouse.They don't come alone," he said. "You have a whole group out there that's suffering."
The increase in mental illness has opened many discussions on life issues.
"We're seeing, so many times, this isn't just an elder issue," Streett said.
In the search, through both Alameda and Contra Costa counties for resources to assist those with whole-life issues, there have been some happy finds.
"We discovered the Ignatian Companions, during the year of Mercy," Streett said. The companions, who meet at Santa Clara University's Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, work with people on the margins.
Although Catholics Care reaches through all phases of life, there is special concern for those facing the end of life.
"The caregivers themselves, whether they're family or professionals, really need support," Streett said.
Another area of improvement, statewide, is hospital chaplaincy. One diocese offers a toll-free number to reach a priest in time of need.
The Oakland diocese offers hospital ministry at 30 hospitals and health care providers.
For health care providers, an opportunity for faith and fellowship
As the Diocese of Oakland prepares for its Second Annual Mass of Thanksgiving for Health Care Providers at the end of the month, a fair amount of community building has already taken place.
Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, will celebrate the Mass at 10 a.m. Sept. 30, to thank and honor those in physical, mental and spiritual health care professions.
"They're not alone in this. This is a loving community.
"Here's an opportunity to thank those engaged in this caring, compassionate ministry," Father Kappler said.
"Alone" is how many health care workers can feel.
"Many times health care workers are under a tremendous amount of stress," he said. "They work hard. They work long hours," he said.
"Just like first responders, you come home and people don't really want to hear about your stresses, or it's hard to understand," he said.
Conversations with health care providers in anticipation of the Mass have revealed a proposal to help counter that loneliness, Father Kappler said.
One participant has suggested that parishes host a monthly "Circle of Compassion," inviting healthcare workers to share prayer, experiences and fellowship with others who live with those stresses.
A reception will follow the Mass, allowing for an opportunity to network and talk about future activities.
In building on last year's gathering, Father Kappler has invited chaplains serving at East Bay hospitals and medical centers to participate. At a recent social, he said, chaplains from Kaiser Oakland, Kaiser Richmond, Sutter, Children's and Highland gathered. With them were representatives from the health department and La Clinica de la Raza, as well as attendees from last year's Mass.
"Everyone said yes, they'd be happy to spread the word," he said.
Organizers are hoping personal invitations — from priests in the parishes, during the Sept. 9-10 Catholics Care homilies, as well as from people in the pews to their friends in the field and their own healthcare providers — will help bring people to the cathedral.
Those people in the pews are also invited to attend the Sept. 30 Mass. "It is not only for health care providers. That's who we're honoring that day," Father Kappler said. "We do that best when we come together in community."
Direct outreach to health care organizations has been met with some resistance. "It's hard to get into the hospitals and the larger health maintenance organizations," Father Kappler said. One religious group cannot appear to be favored over others, for example.
"It's always OK for co-workers, people inside the system, to reach out to their co-workers," he said.
Last year's Mass brought tears to the eyes of at least one participant.
"I'm hearing this nurse, who said she didn't know what to expect. The moment the music started, the tears started to come. It was so healing and soothing," Father Kappler said.
"That's the hope."
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