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Training to Serve in Difficult Moments: Explaining Clinical Pastoral Education

As Brett continues to study for his Masters degree in Social Work, he and Father Dave discuss his experience with hands-on training through internships. Brett is completing different levels of supervised hours for this career path, and wonders what experiences are similar for seminarians as they study to become a priest. 

“A close parallel would be what we call CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, which happens at some point during our seminary years. It’s usually a summer, and very often it’s hospital ministry,” Father Dave says. “It’s something pastoral, so you’re not teaching or doing Bible study. Something where you’re being present to people and providing them with that kind of spiritual prayer, advice, or counseling.” He explains how the role of a priest often goes far beyond sacramental ministry, and this education helps them train for real world situations.

“CPE in my case was in a hospital, and they put us as if we were the chaplain,“ Father Dave says. “A lot of it is about a ministry of presence. So sure, you could be better with experience, but the only way you get better with experience is by actually interacting with real people.” After interactions with patients and families, Father Dave would review the discussions with a supervisor or small group. He notes that CPE is not just for Catholic seminarians, so it was also an interfaith program.

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Father Dave relates his own experience in a level 1 trauma hospital, and how this “self-learning process” helped him become a better future priest. “On my first night on call, and it was overnight, there were three deaths that I attended to, and they were all families with their dad dying. And of course, my dad died when I was 14. And we were not at the hospital, I was not present at his death. So instantly, that’s like diving into the immersion of, ‘So what was that like for you, Dave?’ And how does that make me a better minister? Or how does that handicap me in terms of dealing with parents?”

“One of the moms said to me, after her husband had just died and the kids were in the waiting room, ‘What do you think? Should I let them in to say goodbye?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ And that was not because I was professionally trained, because I’d read some sort of textbook to say that’s right. But my personal experience was that I didn’t get to do that, and I know what that’s like,” Father Dave reflects.

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He remembers CPE helped him learn his role when ministering to those in difficult situations. In meeting with his supervisor, they reviewed an instance where Father Dave visited a patient with a terminal diagnosis. “At one point, [the supervisor] asked me, ‘What do you think is your main reason to be in the room?’ And after he went back and forth with me a little bit, at some point I stumbled upon, ‘I think I’m there to cheer them up.’ And he said, ‘That is absolutely not why you were there.’”

“We don’t like to deal with sadness or darkness or anger, all that kind of stuff. And so when people don’t know what to say, they do go to the platitudes to kind of make it feel better,” Father Dave says. “What they need sometimes from the chaplain is permission to cry and say, ‘I am mad at God.’”