Some call it “pastor support”. I call it hot air. It’s the palaver practised by priests, ministers, rabbis, imans and sometimes even lay people, when they are appointed “chaplains” in hospitals, the armed forces and in jails. There are also chaplains on cruise ships that offer a freebie to ministers of religion to “minister” to the well-heeled believers whose luxurious way of life need not deprive them of “pastor support”.
I used to be a hospital chaplain myself. In Catholic hospitals I was given a white coat, adorned with a small metal cross. I was often mistaken for a doctor by people who didn’t notice the cross nor the fact that I had no stethoscope around my neck. Administering the Last Sacraments was a frequent occurrence, but for the most part chaplaincy involved just chatting and sometimes praying with the bed-ridden. Most appreciated the personal attention, even if they were not particularly devout. Days in hospitals are long, and visitors are, for some patients, rare or non-existent. Chaplains provide a break from the soap-operas and other foolish fare on the tube.
Military chaplains have a cushy job, easier than that of hospital chaplains, in peace-time. But on the battle-field, it’s mud, blood and guts. They are admired for their courage and commitment, and they no doubt bring solace to the wounded and hope to the dying. Their very presence reinforces the faith of men risking life and limb in conflicts they may consider absurd. In God the non-atheist G.I. trusts; his military chaplain he reveres.
The exceptional prison chaplaincy of Sister Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon) and her fight to save a death-row prisoner (Sean Penn) in the movie “Dead Man Walking”, sets the bar way up there for ministers and religious who take on this challenge. Apart from the horror of witnessing capital punishment in the few countries where this barbarism is still practised, prison chaplains face a difficult daily mission of getting through to hardened criminals. Some of the latter do, in fact, “get religion” behind bars and even become themselves quasi-chaplains to fellow inmates. The radicalization of Muslim terrorists has put a spotlight on this recent phenomenon.
There is something tragi-comic in these different forms of chaplaincy. But while the circumstances are radically different from the ministry clergy men and women practise with hospital patients, military personnel and the incarcerated, everyday “pastor support” is just as hollow. “Words, words, words”, said Shakespeare; if only they were founded on fact, and not on the wild imagination and wishful thinking of primitive story-tellers.
Without uttering a word, Charlie Chaplin makes us laugh. When I’m in hospital (the battlefield is unlikely, though prison is still possible), I’d prefer a silent Chaplin to a chatty chaplain.