Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Seminary formation includes summer pastoral experience at Sacred Heart Medical Center
Story and photo by Jami LeBrun, Inland Register staff
(From the July 29, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)
Seminarians studying for the Spokane Diocese have been acquiring pastoral experience in a health care setting at Sacred Heart Medical Center, Spokane. Working with chaplain Joan Balenzano (left) are Kenny St. Hillaire, Luis Alfonso Rivera, Alejandro Zepeda, Lucas Tomson, Vincent Van Dao, and Peter Amah. (IR photo)
This summer, six Spokane seminarians have returned from their theology studies to spend five weeks at Sacred Heart learning to apply their new knowledge in a pastoral setting. The participating seminarians will visit patients and their families and spend time reflecting alone, as a group, and with their mentors and trainer at the hospital.
The Supervised Hospital Ministry experience is a collaboration between Sacred Heart Medical Center and the diocese’s priestly formation program, led by Father Darrin Connall, the Vocations Director for the Spokane Diocese and rector of Bishop White Seminary. The hospital ministry is one of three ministerial experiences in which the seminarians participate during formation. The students also will spend one summer assigned to a parish, and one summer working in a Spanish language and culture setting.
The six Spokane Diocese seminarians participating this summer are Kenny St. Hilaire, Lucas Tomson, Peter Amah, Alejandro Zepeda, Luis Alfonso Rivera, and Vincent Van Dao.
This is the first year the three-part program has been implemented. Father Connall hopes that the addition of a summer of hospital experience will help seminarians to develop strong communication skills, particularly when it comes to listening, as well as introduce them to ministry to the sick.
“Every priest has a regular ministry to the sick,” said Father Connall. “It’s a central component to the priestly life and ministry.”
Sacred Heart Chaplain Joan Balenzano developed the program and is training the seminarians.
“We hope to provide part of the seminary formation that focuses on deepening communication skills, that awareness of self, and how they relate to people in ministry,” she said.
Balenzano said that while the program certainly benefits the seminarians, Sacred Heart is excited about the opportunity to develop relationships with the young men who will be priests in the diocese. She said that this training program will also help the seminarians to develop a familiarity with the hospital that will be very helpful when they are ordained and visiting sick parishioners.
Each seminarian set both personal and pastoral goals for the five week session when they started on July 12. They work Monday-Friday, from 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Each is expected to work one night weekend shift, read several books pertinent to their training, and keep a daily journal.
Though they have only been there two weeks, the six seminarians already recognize the value of the program and the challenges that come along with ministry.
“There are some people who don’t want to talk about anything. They’re closed … they maybe aren’t ready,” said Alejandro Zepeda, a native of Mexico who is now a third-year theologian studying for the diocese.
Peter Amah, a third-year theologian who hails from Nigeria, has encountered other challenges.
“It’s difficult when you enter the room when family members are there and you want to have a focus on the patient,” he said.
And Kenny St. Hilaire, a second-year theology student, said that “being unsure of what to say or what a person needs to hear” has been challenging for him.
Balenzano said that these challenges are the point of the training program. She hopes that the five-week experience will better equip the seminarians to face similar challenges as priests.
Father Connall agrees. “Hospital ministry is the kind of ministry that brings forth a lot of the challenges you face as a pastor in the hospital setting,” he said.
In this day and age when the cost of health care is so high and hospitals are trying to cut costs, many people believe a chaplaincy program is an unnecessary expense. But as the seminarians are introduced for the first time to a hospital setting, they see great value in the program. St. Hilaire sums it up.
“I think the presence of a chaplain is a way of recognizing that people are not just physical beings,” he said. “There is a spiritual element to healing and a spiritual aspect to life.”