The fine art of being present: A Chaplain’s call for the spiritual connection with front line cops

Sometimes being present in the moment is enough to allow feelings of vulnerability to emerge and for healing to begin. Cops, and I dare say fire fighters, are not used to being vulnerable. Often less is more when is comes to shared space, personal pain and having a connection with one or more people who understand. A quiet moment of reflection after a difficult call may be enough to diffuse the experience of trauma and provide damage control going forward. Career hardiness and satisfaction requires that some moments be recognized with a circle of shared vulnerability and authentic empathy that can be just a few seconds to minutes.

Police Chaplaincy since 1800’s

During the coronavirus after a particularly deadly shift, members of ICU teams took a moment to share the names of those who had died in their care. These were somber events that acknowledged the losses and a measure of desolation shared among team members. People undergoing enormously stressful events can unburden themselves only if they acknowledge their inner feeling state. “We’ve seen chaplains accompany COVID patients in their last moments when loved ones could not be present. The year 2020 inflicted deep wounds on many in our communities and chaplains were there offering support,” said Wendy Cadge, the project’s principal investigator and Senior Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives at Brandeis University

“When we can feel and acknowledge our deepest fear – it can be liberating and reduce the perceived stigma of being vulnerable and in pain.”

Elissa Epel, Ph.D., UCSF, as quoted in NY Times

Police, fire, and first responder agencies across America have called upon the chaplaincy when their membership has experienced an out-of-the ordinary exposure to trauma like fatal car crash, death by suicide, death of a member, school or mass shooting, and more. Some of these are more routine like a notification of the sudden death of a family member. Meanwhile, other incidents leave a searing imprint of the entire event like the shooting of over 20 Sandy Hook elementary school students in Newtown, CT. It has been frequently mentioned that exposure to death and uncivilized brutality has an impact on wellness and personal resilience. Not a surprise. In the case of Sandy Hook how can any member of law enforcement or EMS ever forget that day? But what can be done?

Police chaplains is one part of the solution. The Chaplaincy Innovation Lab received two grants totaling $750,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation in the second half of 2020 to continue building and supporting resilience in chaplains and other spiritual care providers across the country. Chaplains often find themselves on the front line and frequently encounter operational chaos when they are called upon to minister to the troops. Yet that rarely stops them. They were there at Sandy Hook in 2012. The new program at Brandeis University in Boston aims to train chaplains to be better equipped for things like Sandy Hook or any community event that impacts large groups of people.

In Boston, the call went out that a firefighter was down. This during a 2-alarm fire in Watertown, MA. The department chaplain Father Matthew Conley was needed “now” at the Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA for the Anointing of the Sick – known to many as “the last rites.” Fr. Matt had not been on scene during the incident as it appeared to be a routine call. But like so many calls it went south in a hurry.

Firefighter Joseph Toscano was near death from a medical emergency suffered while on duty fighting the fire. It was a hot summer day. He was 54-years old and had a large family of a wife and 5 children. The family were all members of the Catholic faith at a parish a short distance from Watertown. For many Catholics, the anointing of the sick is something to bring about reconciliation for someone who may wish to ease their suffering on the journey toward death.

Firefighter Toscano died that day while doing the job he was trained to do. The Last Rites involve prayers and the final Holy Communion known as the Viaticum. These were something Fr. Conley had done many times before. But when he arrived at the Mt. Auburn Hospital that morning he was met by a phalanx of Watertown police and fire fighters. As he walked into the emergency department of the large Cambridge, MA hospital he knew right away by the look in their eyes that this was no ordinary blessing. He was called to minister, first, to the dying public servant, his wife and children who had been brought to his bedside at the trauma center. But what’s more, he was tasked with consoling the entire brotherhood who looked to him for comfort and hope when no amount of prayer could bring back their fallen brother. But he listened, and he heard their pain, and validated their experience.

“You are here for all of them”, he would say, “and I am here for you.” Fr. Matt Conley sharing the words of former Parish Administrator Fr. Kevin Sepe at Watertown Collaborative.

The story is told that as Fr. Conley dealt with the enormity of the pain felt by all who felt the sudden loss of the career firefighter, when in-walked Fr. Kevin Sepe, the Watertown Collaborative priest administrator. The presence of Father Conley brought a strong empathic presence to the family who had lost their husband and father and to the first line firefighters who felt the loss deeply. Fr. Matt listened and he offered prayers.

From his years as a priest and police chaplain, Fr. Sepe understood what Fr. Conley was facing in the call to the hospital crisis as the department chaplain. His support was largely nonverbal that day. “You are here for them,” he would say, “and I am here for you,” bringing his presence, peer support, and understanding of the enormity the ministry at hand.

“Police chaplains aren’t there to push a religion on police officers; their role is primarily to listen and offer emotional and spiritual support” from an article in Police One, 2015. The chaplain program has been around for over 200 years and often works in the background subliminally. The military has utilized multi-denominational chaplains to minister the troops as well. These men and women are on the front lines and 3 members of the clergy have paid the ultimate price for their calling during recent wars.

Chicago Police Chaplain Father Dan Brandt

Not everyone is religious and you might believe that a goal of a department chaplain is to advocate one denomination over another. Not the case at all. The chaplain may be a Catholic priest as in the illustrated case or he or she may be an ordained Protestant minister, Muslim Imam, or a Jewish rabbi or some other ordained member of the clergy. As a police officer, I worked with a female protestant chaplain who was very helpful with members of our community. I would not have hesitated speaking with her in confidence if I were in need. The role of the chaplain is to provide support and to listen. She was good at it too. Being present with someone who is in crisis or dying can be among the most gut wrenching of all human experience. Fr. Conley once told me he never goes anywhere without the Sacramental oils for the blessing of the sick. This allows him to be ready to offer the Sacrament should he be called to do so. He felt deeply that this anointing was his duty and one of seven sacraments priests are prepared to offer.

I have given death notifications before and have witnessed the soul wrenching-anguish experienced by those receiving these notifications. It is a horrible experience and I remember most all of these events and am still bothered by several.

For line of duty deaths, chaplain’s ask if prayer might be helpful. The sacrament of the sick is one “of strengthening, peace, and courage to overcome the difficulties that go with the condition of serious illness or the frailty of old age provided by the Catholic Priest. This grace is a gift of the Holy Spirit, who renews trust and faith in God against the temptation of discouragement and anguish in the face of death” according to Michelle Arnold published in Catholic Answers in 2017.

The key to a successful departmental chaplaincy is contact — if you have enough chaplains strategically placed who are artful in “reaching out and touching someone,” two things will happen. Successful interactions will take place and the word will get around. Once calls for a chaplain begin to come directly to a chaplain from the on-scene sergeant or deputy, the chaplaincy has made its mark.  Chaplains can best serve when their role is defined and the confidentiality of their relationship to law enforcement is understood. Police One, 2015

The chaplaincy has been around for centuries in public service. It is making entry into many law enforcement agencies in earnest. Many have had chaplains riding in cruisers for decades like Fr. Dan Brandt in Chicago and his fine crew of law enforcement trained chaplains of all denominations. At some times, this has raised the issue of mixing government with religion. But there are guidelines in place. “In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the justices established the three-pronged “Lemon Test,” which, as it translates to the chaplain’s position, says he must have a secular purpose, must not excessively entangle the government with religion, and neither proselytize nor inhibit religion” said reporter Jon O’Connell in a 2017 report. The police and fire department chaplain is there for support of first responders, not as an evangelist, but as moral reminder of the “sacred nature” of their work, according to Fr. Dan Brandt, the director of the Chicago Police Ministry. In Watertown and now Scituate, Massachusetts, Fr. Matthew Conley brings forth his presence with kindness, reverence, and often good humor making the human connection with those in his purview.

Brandeis Now. Chaplaincy Innovation Lab at Brandeis University receives $750,000 from Henry Luce Foundation. January 23, 2021

O’Connell, J. (2017) Police chaplains take a stronger role in community policing. Scranton Times-Tribune. News article.

McDermott, M and  Cowan, J. Combating Pandemic Fatigue. Quoted in NY Times. October 2020.

3 thoughts on “The fine art of being present: A Chaplain’s call for the spiritual connection with front line cops

  1. Reblogged this on CRAIN'S COMMENTS and commented:
    Ethics and compassion belong among first responders, they belong among business managers, among politicians — it’s rather hard to find a place where they don’t belong. In saying this we are not pushing a certain set of values on anyone, save respect for all human life and the varied challenges that everyone faces. We are, as Dickens wrote, “fellow travelers to the grave” and our job is not to make life any harder for one another than it is. In the end, wealth, power, all of that falls away and what’s left that people remember is what good you have done, if any. We see names on campuses and on buildings in older cities, chiseled in stone, that mean nothing now. Yet we also have our political, social and artistic heroes whose names mean everything to us, and who may appear on no building anywhere. Do people remember Carnegie for his steel or his foundation? That’s an easy answer, isn’t it?

  2. Thank you Vic Crain, some of the greatest philanthropy has come with the least fanfare. I saw an interview with Peter Salk the son of Jonas Salk who created the polio vaccine. He was soft spoken and tended to want to share his father’s accomplishments with the team at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. While not exactly philanthropy, his gift of science save the lives of thousands including my father who contracted polio when he was 8 years old. Ethics and compassion lead the science and its shared social underpinning.

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