As a hospital chaplain, Father Bryan Carney acts as the hands and feet of Jesus in the sick wards he visits.
“It’s certainly not me, but God working and healing through the priest’s prayers,” said Father Carney, a chaplain at Flushing Hospital. “There are miracles happening literally every day all around the hospital.”
His ministry and that of the other 25 Catholic chaplains in the Diocese of Brooklyn came to the fore on Sept. 18 during the first interfaith Chaplain’s Day conference for chaplains, medical workers and hospital officials at the Immaculate Conception Center in Douglaston.
Catholic priests, religious sisters, Christian pastors, imams and rabbis attended the day of talks, prayer and fellowship, which was organized by the Diocese of Brooklyn’s Hospital and Healthcare Chaplaincy Program.
Bishop DiMarzio — who is in charge of appointments and assignments — blessed the chaplains at the conference and thanked them for their service to local hospitals and medical centers in the diocese, reminding them of the main goal of their ministry: mercy.
It was that sense of mercy that Gina Spalling, a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Windsor Terrace, felt when Father Francis Obu-Mends, a chaplain at Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park, helped Spalling and her late husband, Robert, when he was dying of Stage 4 cancer in early 2012.
At the time, Father Obu-Mends regularly visited and prayed for Robert, and he performed the Last Rites.
“We really connected, and he has been a real blessing to me and to my family, to the church,” Spalling said. “Words cannot explain the part [Father Obu-Mends] played in keeping me centered through that difficult time, when I really needed it the most.”
When Father Obu-Mends goes to work at Maimonides every day, he starts his ministering rounds on the emergency room floor.
“For a chaplain or priest to be there, it gives them some sense of peace and calm … and moments like this put us [chaplains] in a situation to exercise pastoral judgement. It’s about giving compassion, empathy and care. Bringing comfort to the family — that’s at the core of pastoral care, of what we do.”“When somebody is ill and goes to the hospital, there is always anxiety and panic for what’s going to happen,” said Father Obu-Mends, who is a priest-in-residence at Immaculate Heart of Mary.
“For a chaplain or priest to be there, it gives them some sense of peace and calm … and moments like this put us [chaplains] in a situation to exercise pastoral judgement. It’s about giving compassion, empathy and care. Bringing comfort to the family — that’s at the core of pastoral care, of what we do.”
As Father Carney can attest, hospital chaplains are busy. He administers the sacrament of the anointing of the sick 40 to 50 times a week. He calls himself “Father La Morte,” meaning “death” in Italian.
“I’m there for the sick, the dying, the elderly, diseased, the accidents — it’s kind of a steady diet of the other side of ministry,” Father Carney said.
“Other priests in the parish, they have first Communion, confirmation, baptisms, the sacraments … We hospital chaplains roll up our sleeves and dig in. We’re like foot soldiers, to use a military call. It’s a steady diet, and it’s not for everybody. But those of us who are called do it, we do it as long as we can, as long as God gives us the strength to do it,” he said.
At a recent weekly Mass in hospital’s the interfaith chapel, Father Carney told the room full of staff on their lunch breaks: “You are the reason the hospital is alive — because you bring your faith to your God-given talents. And your faith is every bit as active as the medicine.”
Marilyn Fabro, a registered nurse and parishioner at St. Nicholas of Tolentine, said that being able to come to Mass with a parish priest is “the biggest blessing and highlight of each week.”
“Sometimes I can’t go to Sunday Mass, and Father [Bryan] being here is a gift to us. So now on weekends when I work, I have people to pray with,” Fabro, who works in the hospice, said. “It’s important because we are spiritually healed, and it helps us to heal and comfort our patients in turn. It’s the connection between us [nurses], Father Bryan and the people here.”
What keeps Father Carney going? It’s his devotion to the Blessed Mother, specifically to Our Lady of Medjugorje, where he frequently visits to make prayer pilgrimages and have healing Rosaries blessed.
“I’ve always had a great connection to Our Lady. When I struggle, it’s [her] relationship that keeps me going,” he said. “My secret is the rosaries I carry, blessed by her apparition at Medjugorje; I’ve seen people healed that there is no explanation for. There are miracles happening in the hospital literally every day.”