Hospital chaplain reaches out to those who feel forgotten Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Angela Curio, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Jul. 16, 2020 -- 12:00 AM

Fr. Pat Norris
Fr. Pat Norris, OP, chaplain at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, visits with patient Tom Donahue of Madison.
(Photo courtesy of SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital)

MADISON -- "One of the things right now, in terms of COVID, is people say to me something along the lines of 'I think God has forgotten me.'" This is the observation of Fr. Pat Norris, OP, chaplain and ethicist at SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital in Madison.

Father Norris wears many hats. He is the prior of the Dominican Community at Blessed Sacrament Parish, Madison, where he was pastor for nine years prior to taking on the chaplaincy eight years ago. Before starting his priestly ministry, he was a chemist working for the University of New Mexico.

New Evangelization

He expressed that his ministry at St. Mary's is "a wonderful combination of those three interests: of pastoral care, ethics, and medicine," and an "excellent opportunity . . . to engage in what I call the New Evangelization", however limited now due to the pandemic.

He spoke about how the term "New Evangelization" came from Pope Saint John Paul II and how Bishop Donald J. Hying "is very strong in that right now." And he talked about the changes to his ministry due to the pandemic and about his approach to preaching the Gospel to "those who are searching."

Visitation and phone ministry

Initially, due to shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), patients were not allowed to have any visitors in order to preserve what PPE was available.

"We've only recently allowed one visitor per patient," said Father Norris. "But for a while, as in other hospitals, people were not able to have visitors except under very exceptional circumstances."

As hospital chaplain, he's been allowed a little more freedom than other priests to minister to patients around the hospital. "I am able to celebrate the sacraments for them -- even for patients who have the virus -- if it's an end of life type situation or a very difficult situation. So, I'll go in and hear Confession or celebrate last rites for the person."

But a good portion of his ministry has been reduced to phone ministry.

"The phone ministry has been very insightful," he said. "People have this pent-up energy to talk, so they really enjoy the phone call from us. Sometimes they would talk more than usual and precisely because they hadn't had as many visitors."

Importance of being present

But he emphasized that evangelization isn't so much about words as it is about being present and helping others to encounter God, stating that "there's nothing like having someone in person."

"I always understand myself as an instrument of God's presence," he said. "That I'm not there on my own behalf. I'm there on behalf of God, but I also understand that God uses my own talents, my own abilities, my own personality to reveal Himself."

While he did not say so in such words, what Father Norris expressed is how all the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy work together to proclaim the Gospel.

"What we say and do is reveal the healing presence of God," he said referring specifically to ministering to those in the hospital. "So, I reach out to preach the Gospel in some ways -- not like proselytizing -- but telling people what the Lord can do in their lives for them when they are searching."

"What we are trying to do is help people experience that presence of God, so that they know they are not alone," he said.

Pandemic challenges

And so, the pandemic creates great challenges to this effort.

"This has been one of the greatest difficulties," he said. "That in order to love people, we've had to keep away from people and stay distant from people. And that is totally foreign to how we are as human beings. It's totally foreign to our reality in terms of how we understand that we find God in community, and that we worship together in community.

"That especially, as Catholics, we're not merely spiritual, but we're religious. We thrive on that religious participation, and we've not been able to do that. And so, it's just been an odd thing that the way we love has to be the opposite of what we usually understand love to be in terms of our presence."

Still, he is able to offer some type of presence to people over the phone, talking, listening, and "even through my humor" he said.

"You know, it's interesting right now, because there are many people that are in skilled nursing facilities and assisted living places that are on lockdown essentially," he said.

"So, they can't have family come in or loved ones. So, I'd say, 'What did you do? Did you drop a bowling ball on your foot in order to get here to the hospital so you can see your son or daughter?' Just joking.

"But, it's a strange thing that being in the hospital right now," he said. "There's a certain relief, because they're able to see their family members. (It) somehow helps them with their loneliness."

SSM Health

Inspired by its founding Religious Sisters, SSM Health St. Mary's Hospital values the sacredness and dignity of each person.

For more on the hospital's mission and values, visit