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Diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory

Bishop’s April Letter

Dear Friends

One of the pastoral priorities of the Church of Ireland has always been ministry to those in hospital. While parish clergy will usually make special efforts to visit their parishioners during a hospital stay, day-to-day pastoral care of in-patients and sacramental ministry to them is the responsibility of our hospital chaplains. The ministry of the chaplains is recognised by the HSE or other hospital authority, and the chaplains are rightly seen as part of the official hospital team in the context of the delivery of holistic healthcare.

For Church of Ireland chaplains, ‘finding ‘ patients who would genuinely desire to receive ministry from them is always a challenge. Lists traditionally provided to chaplains were never 100 per cent reliable … for example patients admitted via emergency departments may not have had a chance to choose to have their religious affiliation recorded. The pastoral care of members of a minority community poses particular challenges, as relatively small numbers of patients may be scattered across many wards in a large hospital, and those patients or their families may need to be proactive in ensuring the chaplain is aware of their location.

Ideally, patients who are Church of Ireland and who wish to be seen by the chaplain would freely choose on admission to have these facts recorded on ‘the system’. The official hospital chaplain would then regularly receive, on a confidential basis, lists of patients desiring to see him or her. These lists would contain no information other than the name, home address and ward of those choosing to be designated ‘Church of Ireland’. The chaplain would be precluded from sharing the information with any other party … for example a chaplain cannot tell a patient’ s home rector that their parishioner is in hospital without the patient’s explicit consent. Nor can the chaplain discuss outside the hospital details of pastoral encounters that have taken place within it.

Chaplains are keenly aware of the sensitivity of patient data, particularly in the religious sphere. There has always been a high degree of respect for patient confidentiality. However, at least until recently, the provision of lists of Church of Ireland patients was considered to be an indispensable tool in the ministry of the chaplain, and the HSE was assumed to accept the importance of this.


In recent months, however, citing supposed new data control requirements, two major general hospitals in this diocese have without prior consultation terminated the access of ALL their chaplains to individual patient data. The Church of Ireland chaplains no longer receive lists, and it is something of a mystery how they are supposed to discharge their duties … duties which the HSE itself accepts derive from the right of patients to holistic care. Are chaplains expected to rely on the grapevine to discover who wishes to receive their ministry? Are they meant to walk around wards with some telepathic capacity to locate Anglicans? It sounds almost ridiculous but this is the situation in which several of our chaplains are being placed.

Meanwhile some patients are expressing disappointment that they are not being visited, but the blame cannot be laid at the door of the chaplains. I have been reluctant hitherto to write publicly in this vein, and we have been making representations and indeed complaints at the very highest level in the HSE, but I feel the time has come to be more upfront regarding this major issue … not least because it received an airing on the Joe Duffy programme recently. The problem is not confined to this diocese, and I fear it is going to become more widespread. One has to wonder what the agenda may be.


If I may dare to give some advice to Church of Ireland patients and their families who genuinely value the ministry of chaplains while in hospital it would be this:

  • if at all possible, make sure to designate yourself ‘Church of Ireland’ on admission and make clear that you are freely seeking to receive the ministry of the chaplain
  • If you do not receive a visit from the chaplain within a reasonable period, please ask the reason why from the staff member in charge of the ward, and be proactive in requesting that your desire for a visit be recorded
  • Tell your rector of your hospital admission and give him or her permission to inform the chaplain
  • If you encounter a chaplain who is not Church of Ireland doing his or her ward rounds please both express appreciation of his/her ministry, and authorise him/her to mention your presence to the Church of Ireland chaplain
  • If you discern that the Church of Ireland chaplain has not been made aware of your desire to receive ministry from him/her, whether you have expressed this at admission or in the course of your stay, please after your discharge raise this in writing with the hospital management.

It is unfortunate to need to spell out such things, when your main concern in hospital is to get better, but some important principles are at stake. We have always held that hospital chaplains work alongside medical and nursing professionals in continuing Christ’s ministry of healing and in offering holistic care, and it is vital … for the sake of patients … that this ministry does not become side-lined or devalued through some kind of misguided political correctness or even any actual negativity towards spirituality and faith.


Greetings to all the parishes as you move towards the climax of Lent in the disciplines and endeavours of Holy Week, followed by the joy of Easter. May I dare to draw particular attention once again to the dawn Eucharist at Stradbally lake in Co Laois on Easter morning. Among the various dawn Eucharists around the diocese which celebrate the Rising of the Lord, this service … organised by the Laois Youth Council, along with the local parish and Mr Tom Cosby of Stradbally Hall … is for me particularly special. A barbecue breakfast follows and the experience is quite wonderful: if you have not come before give it a try – it is well worth the very early start. Entrance is via the main gate of Stradbally Hall in the centre of the village. In order to catch the light, with a rather late Easter this year, the service needs to begin at 0535! This is a time to note NOW.


Many across the diocese will want to join me in offering our prayers and sincere sympathy to Dean Gerald Field of Cashel following the recent death of his mother in England. Indeed our thoughts and solidarity are with all throughout the diocesan family who have been bereaved in recent weeks.


Michael Cashel Ferns & Ossory