A pivotal training for all seminarians before ordination is completing a hospital ministry program.
In the Diocese of Little Rock, during the summer before they begin Theology III, they spend 11 weeks at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock working as hospital chaplains.
This training, known as Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), is required for all seminarians. By the time they reach this point in formation, seminarians are two years away from being ordained. They are able to put what they’ve learned about philosophy and theology to practical use.
Father Jeff Hebert, diocesan vocations director, oversees the program.
“As a part of the seminary process, it's actually part of the masters of divinity degree,” Father Hebert said. “In order to get the degree from the seminary, this is one of the credits that they need. But there are only certain hospitals that have an accredited CPE training program. In Little Rock, St. Vincent, our Catholic hospital, doesn't have one. UAMS has a chaplaincy and CPE program and so does Baptist.
“Seminarians have to minister at a hospital for CPE only in a hospital that has one of these accredited institutions that officially trains chaplains. We were sending guys to UAMS, and UAMS is not a religious institution, even though it does have chaplaincies. At some point, my predecessor, Msgr. Scott Friend, made a shift to Baptist just because it was a more explicitly religious hospital.”
Dr. Michael Rogers, Baptist Health’s system director of pastoral care and a certified Association for Clinical Pastoral Education educator, has been in pastoral ministry for 25 years. He helps guide the seminarians throughout the summer.
“I'm a journeyperson with them,” Rogers said. “I'm also teaching the best practices on how to meet families where they are, but the goal is to try to train them to be better pastors and better caregivers because they're going to have parishioners who are going through suffering. A lot of times, you have students that understand theology from a cognitive place, but it's transformational when they’re able to understand real experience and walk with people in their suffering and pain.”
Duwan Booker, a seminarian for the Diocese of Little Rock and member of St. Joseph Church in Conway, is one of two diocesan seminarians currently in CPE training. Joel Brackett of Rogers is also taking his CPE.
“When I began, I was very excited at the prospect of doing hospital ministry,” Booker said. “I’ve gained a lot of insight into hospital ministry just through the sheer need the patients have and the amount of patients that have needs and just how much of a difference a five, 10-, 15-minute visit can have on someone's whole outlook as far as their recovery process is concerned. So it's been very enlightening and life-giving.”
Baptist Health Medical Center doesn’t only host Arkansas seminarians. This summer, Baptist Health is offering CPE to six seminarians who have come from as far away as San Bernardino, Calif., and Green Bay, Wis.
With a limited number of CPE locations throughout the country, hospitals occasionally fill up in the towns the seminarians are from. More often, though, Diocese of Little Rock seminarians meet seminarians from other parts of the country and talk about the CPE program at Baptist Health, leading the out-of-state seminarians to do their CPE training in Little Rock with their friends. They live at the diocese’s House of Formation in Little Rock.
One such seminarian is Luis De La Cruz from the Archdiocese of San Antonio. Despite all the hardships he has witnessed, De La Cruz said he has also seen beauty in the work of a chaplain.
“Being able to accompany someone during these times and just being with people in such remote, vulnerable moments is powerful,” De La Cruz said. “Just being present with them. It’s something that I didn't really take in before I started that I’m starting to realize more and more.”
Father Hebert has witnessed the power CPE has to touch the hearts of the seminarians.
“It’s a pivotal year,” he said. “A lot of us go through life, and we all have our ups and downs. Everyone has challenges, but when you are seeing human suffering day in and day out, it really gets you connected with the cross. And so it has a really deep impact on the guys.
“They're certainly more mature when it comes to embracing compassionate accompaniment with people. There's always a change in their maturity. When you see the difficulties that people go through, it makes you more compassionate, more sensitive and really more patient with everybody.”
Booker said he has experienced these effects of hospital ministry during his time this summer.
“I was expecting to invigorate or give life to the patients or to minister to the patients here at the hospital,” Booker said. “But I've found that instead of me ministering to them, in many ways, they've ministered to me, and they've built up my faith and encouraged me to continue to trust the Lord. Just the sheer strength of their faith is very inspiring to me.”
CPE also touched De La Cruz’s life in a personal way.
“I’ve learned the importance of balance in my own life, of making sure that I take care of myself so that I can take the care of the needs of others,” De La Cruz said. “And then I also learned about complete surrender to God in any situation because I have no control. At the end of the day, if I surrender to him, God brings it all to the good.”
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