A ministry of presence

High Prairie pastor uses new training in ministry to sick and elderly

It is often in moments of great suffering and sickness that the need for spiritual help most presses on the human soul. For Catholic priests, providing such spiritual help to those in hospital and in their final moments of life is key to their ministry.

Thanks to new training he has received through the Providence Health Centre in Vancouver, Fr. Lawrence Odoemena recognizes his role as a spiritual help to the sick and aged is not merely to be an administrator of sacraments, but first and foremost to be a companion to them.

From May 28th to August 18th of this year, Fr. Lawrence underwent 200 hours of clinical work, 200 hours of class time and group discussion, and ten hours of individual supervision as part of the “Clinical Psycho-Spiritual Education” program. For the majority of these weeks Odoemena spent Monday, Wednesday and Friday training at the Mount St. Joseph Hospital in Vancouver, and was in the classroom on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He also spent nine weeks doing an internship at the long term care unit at Vancouver’s Holy Family Hospital.

What motivated him above all in taking this unique course was a desire to better serve others through his priesthood.

“I wanted to be able to attend to the sick, the aged and the dying in our hospitals, to be present to them and to be able to respond to their needs as a chaplain, and as a ‘spiritual help’ addressing their spiritual health needs,” he said.

Fr. Lawrence had first heard of the Clinical Psycho-Spiritual Education program through other priests that had taken it and gained many practical insights from the experience.

So when Archbishop Pettipas recommended the program at a priests meeting earlier in the year, Fr. Lawrence jumped on the opportunity to take it.

Fr. Lawrence Odoemena now visits the hospital and long-term care facilities in High Prairie at least twice a week to minister to patients and residents.

While the program brings with it a variety of lessons in psychology, theology and spiritual care, above all, Fr. Lawrence says, the program fosters a ministry of presence – to help pastors become more welcoming and open in accompanying others through their moments of sickness and suffering.

“The whole essence of it was to teach us how to be present, how to be present to the sick,” he said. “Sometimes we go in, we give the sacraments and we leave. This was designed to turn our attention firstly to the sick person, to the recipient of care. I’m going there not just to attend to the sick person, no, I am going there to listen to the sick person, for them to minister to me, in the sense that I am there to be fully present with them.”

Over the nine weeks that Fr. Lawrence engaged in his internship with persons in long-term care, he spent his days doing just that: being present with those in the last stages of their lives, listening to them and attending to their needs and concerns.

After each day, he would journal his experiences and then share them with other students in the program. The students would then discuss what went well, what could have been done differently and in what ways they could improve in their ministry. While Fr. Lawrence was the only priest in his class, there was also two Redemptorist seminarians and a number of Protestant ministers from the Presbyterium, Pentecostal and United churches.

Fr. Lawrence Odoemena at the High Prairie Health Complex.

“I got a lot out of the program. I became more self-aware, especially of my own behaviour in the presence of the sick. I’m still learning to deal with end of life issues, something I always feared in the past, but now I am more comfortable to be with those who are dying.”

The experience has fostered a renewed passion within the priest. Since returning to his parish of St. Paul’s in High Prairie, Fr. Lawrence has begun to make this ministry to the sick and elderly a much larger part of his pastoral mission.

This is only an excerpt. Read the full story in the December 2023 edition of Northern Light