A couple of current and upcoming events invite us to pause and reflect on what Pastoral Care might mean for us. One of these events is International Pastoral Care / Spiritual Care Week, celebrated last week – its focus on Spiritual Care in a health setting. The other, being celebrated in the Catholic community across Australia this Sunday on 7 November, is Prison Sunday.

Pastoral and spiritual care is, ultimately, a ministry of presence.

Up until two years ago, such a statement would simply have been taken as a given, especially for those of us who know and understand the world of pastoral and spiritual care.

But then the world changed.

A global pandemic took hold and virtually every aspect of our lives had to be refashioned through a “COVID safe” prism. All client facing services were faced with the challenge of finding ways to stay connected with our people – pastoral and spiritual care was no exception.

Our health and prison teams, two areas among CatholicCare Victoria’s varied pastoral ministries, have found that being a presence in hospital settings that are under great stress, or across prisons and youth justice custodial centers that have been in lockdown for extended periods of time, has been especially challenging.

Our hospital chaplains can share many heartbreaking stories of patients whose life journey has come to an end without being able to share these precious moments surrounded by their significant others. Here, pastoral accompaniment has become that point of connection between the patient and family.

Over different periods of time during the pandemic, hospital chaplains have sometimes worked remotely connecting with people via telehealth, or have been a pastoral presence on the wards despite the necessary challenges of personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection control regimes.

Across the Corrections landscape, except for short periods of being physically present in the custodial facilities, our Chaplains have learnt to transcend the COVID imposed restrictions.

Working collaboratively with the Prison providers, the world of Zoom has become a vital tool to remain pastorally connected with many, many residents in the 15 prisons across the State.

Limitations notwithstanding, our Chaplains have made connections with several thousand residents over the last year. Among the current population of almost 7,000 people in our Victorian prisons, some could be described as “career criminals”. The vast majority however are very vulnerable people whose lives are impacted by so many hurdles.

Whether the setting is a hospital or a custodial facility, the offer to reconnect with a sense of purpose and meaning is at the heart of the pastoral relationship between the chaplain and the person.

In the midst of a pandemic, we boldly continue to dream that profound human connection is possible. As Pope Francis put it,

Let us dream together, because it was precisely the dreams of freedom and equality, of justice and dignity, the dreams of community, that improved the world. And I am convinced when we look through these dreams we will find God’s own dream for all of us.

To support the Pastoral Care ministries at CatholicCare Victoria, please consider making a donation. Your assistance can enable chaplains to continue being a pastoral presence for people in need.

The Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service has prepared the following liturgical resources for those involved in prison ministry or for communities who wish to pray for the important work of prison ministry: