Encountering Mercy: Visit the Sick
“Encountering Mercy” is a series exploring the corporal works of mercy during the Jubilee Year through the lens of the people whose lives exemplify them. In February, the Diocese of Camden focuses on “Visit the Sick.” This month’s profiles will highlight examples of those who experience this corporal work of mercy in their daily lives.
Joan Miller, 70, has been in the hospital for nearly a year and a half. She’s gone through four hip replacements and two knee replacements. After the most recent surgery, she lost mobility and has been in rehab ever since.
Miller met Anne Marie Pirillo while she was a patient at Inspira Medical Center in Woodbury. Pirillo is an associate hospital chaplain for the Diocese of Camden, serving Inspira and Kennedy University Hospital in Washington Township. Together with chaplain Father Tomy O. Thomas, the team visits every Catholic patient in the hospitals every day.
After months at Inspira, Miller was transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Deptford. Even though it was outside of her service area, Pirillo continues to visit Miller once a week.
“Anne comes and gives me Communion and I really like that,” Miller said. “We talk and she gives me some will to live. We’re friends. I just enjoy her company so much.”
Miller’s husband is also sick, but he is being treated in a different hospital. One of the most difficult parts of her situation is not being able to be with him while he’s sick, Miller said.
“Every time Anne gives me Communion I ask God to please let me walk, please, please let us get back together. At least let me get better so I can take care of him for awhile,” she said.
For weeks it seemed like Miller wasn’t making progress toward mobility. Until last week, when, on one of her visits, Pirillo said she walked into the room and saw her sitting in a chair for the first time.
“As long as I’ve been seeing her, since August, that was the first time I’ve seen her sitting up in a chair. That was a beautiful moment for me,” Pirillo said.
Miller has few visitors other than Pirillo and one longtime friend who visits when she can. She describes what it’s like after Pirillo leaves.
“I was so glad that she stopped, and then I miss her, and then I wait for her to come back again.”
Pirillo has been an associate chaplain since August 2015 when the diocese started a new, reorganized hospital chaplaincy program under the umbrella of the newly formed Home and Parish Healthcare Services office, known as VITALity.
The new model pairs a priest chaplain with an associate chaplain, who could be a deacon, religious or layperson. Together, these teams minister to the hospitals in their region, or “cluster,” administering the sacraments and making pastoral visits to patients. They serve as the link between parishes and hospitals, helping parishes stay informed about their sick parishioners and helping patients connect to diocesan health services after their discharge.
Pirillo’s visits take her into one of the two hospitals in her service area every day to talk with patients and their families and support the hospital staff. She and Father Thomas, the chaplain, alternate facilities in their cluster. A team of Eucharistic Minister volunteers helps them distribute Communion.
“For me it’s so humbling and rewarding at the same time,” Pirillo said of her ministry. “Patients not only need medical support. They also need emotional and spiritual support to heal as a whole person. It truly is a blessing to be a part of this program and to share the healing love of Christ.”
When Joe (last name withheld by request), 79, fell in December, it meant surgery and a 20-day hospital stay at Kennedy for rehabilitation. Throughout his stay, his wife Pat was almost constantly by his side and saw that one member of the Catholic chaplaincy team would visit her husband every day.
“We were amazed. We thought maybe someone would come once in a while. We couldn’t believe someone would come every day,” Pat said. “He’s been through a lot. It’s nice to know that people care about you.”
Last Sunday, Joe and Pat were at Mass together again at their parish of nearly 40 years, Holy Family in Sewell. The visits they received in the hospital felt like an extension of the community they’ve found at their parish, Pat said. On Sunday, friends surrounded them, telling them how glad they were to see them back at church.
“We always felt that we were cared for at Holy Family; the priest as well as the people in the church cared about you,” Pat said.
While Joe recovers, he continues wearing the green scapular he was given by a hospital chaplain.
“I really appreciated them coming like that,” Joe said. “It helped to know somebody’s looking out for you and is willing to come and give you the sacrament when you can’t get to church. They kept my spirits up.”
Learn more about hospital chaplaincy in the Diocese of Camden by visiting VITALity.CamdenDiocese.org
The mercy of visiting the sick
In September, 2015, Pope Francis published his message for the 24th World Day of the Sick, which will be celebrated on Feb. 11. The day was established by Pope John Paul II as a day of prayer for those who are sick and their caretakers.
“Illness, above all grave illness, always places human existence in crisis and brings with it questions that dig deep. Our first response may at times be one of rebellion: Why has this happened to me? We can feel desperate, thinking that all is lost, that things no longer have meaning…
“In these situations, faith in God is on the one hand tested, yet at the same time can reveal all of its positive resources. Not because faith makes illness, pain, or the questions which they raise, disappear, but because it offers a key by which we can discover the deepest meaning of what we are experiencing; a key that helps us to see how illness can be the way to draw nearer to Jesus who walks at our side, weighed down by the Cross. And this key is given to us by Mary, our Mother, who has known this way at first hand.”