What does it mean to be a hospital chaplain? An interview with Fr Peter Harries, OP

In the increasingly secular world, it seems strange to have a hospital chaplaincy. Why do we need one? Do they do anything useful for the patients in hospital?

In an attempt to try and answer these questions, we interviewed Fr Peter Harries, the Lead Chaplain at University College London Hospital (UCLH).

The chaplaincy is located next to the hospital’s busy and noisy canteen. Fronted with glass doors, the open space leads off to a multi-faith quiet room, a Christian chapel, a Jewish Sabbath room and a Muslim prayer room. The quiet is a contrast from the usual bustle of a hospital. In the corner is an office where we meet him.

Fr Peter apologises for eating his lunch whilst we talk – he has had a busy day so far. When asked what he has been up to he pauses briefly and says he should not go into too many details so as to protect the confidentiality of those he sees. His morning started with being called to the labour ward as a family was in need after their recent bereavement due to a miscarriage. To him this is the most challenging part of his role.


The rest of his day included liaising with other professionals, attending meetings, administering Holy Communion, celebrating Mass and, of course, visiting patients. Seeing patients and giving them pastoral care is the bulk of his work.

Patients access his care in a number of different ways. Prior to a patient being admitted to hospital, the patient’s faith institution may contact the Chaplaincy to arrange an appointment. Once admitted, the patient may make a self-referral; alternatively, family members or the nursing staff may do this on the patient’s behalf. It is interesting to note that of all the medical professionals who work to care for the patient, doctors are the least likely to refer a patient to the chaplaincy. The chaplains also try to make a special effort to see all patients who declare themselves on their admission forms to be a member of their respective faiths. Sometimes things are more spontaneous, and people may call out to him while he is walking round the wards as they recognise his clerical collar.

He accepts that he may be perceived as someone who ‘talks about God all the time’ but he considers this to be unrepresentative of the work he does. He defines his role as providing for the pastoral, spiritual and religious needs of the patient and spends more time listening than ‘preaching’. His ability to spend time with patients in a way that medical staff are not able to is very valuable to the patients. He explains, ‘sometimes people want to talk about their grandson who is coming to visit or who is taking care of the dog’ rather than when they are going for surgery.


In this way, it seems many parallels can be drawn between the work of chaplains and that of counsellors. When I asked him what he had done previously to prepare for this role, he replied that he had done some training in pastoral care many years ago. A Dominican brother and priest, he pursued religious life after doing a degree in Mathematics at Manchester University. Part of the formation to become a priest is training in psychology and pastoral care. He does however believe that more training could be given in the future to new chaplains, though he is quick to point out that he is not a counsellor. Knowing his ‘limitations’, he would refer people for counselling if he considered they needed more structured support. He and the nursing staff work closely together to ensure that the patient and their family receive the psychological care they need.

Having been a hospital chaplain for almost 21 years, he has witnessed ‘a change in hospital culture’, in which other professionals, especially nurses, are more aware of the important care offered by chaplains to a patient’s overall health. This integrated vision of health is a relatively recent development. He believes that with the rise of palliative care as a specialty, more people now know ‘how to ask the right questions in time’ and this had led to chaplains being involved earlier. This has resulted in ‘less middle – of – the – night call outs than in the past’ as care is accessed earlier and he has more planned meetings with the family.

Brendan Gleeson, left, and Chris O’Dowd in the movie Calvary

Brendan Gleeson, left, and Chris O’Dowd in the movie Calvary

An important aspect of the chaplain’s role is in palliative care. To do such work must be difficult and emotionally draining. When I asked how he coped with it all, he said it is a ‘simple life of prayer’ that allowed him to keep coming back.

Interestingly, he believes that at the end of life people are not as lacking in religion as one might expect given the current climate. My own experiences on the ward cohere with his statement as I have noticed that it is on wards with patients undergoing palliative care that religious images are more frequently on display. Perhaps the reason why the chaplains are so involved in the palliative care team is because they provide a unique perspective when contemplating end of life questions. To them, and others of religious belief, death is just part and parcel of the great incomprehensible drama that is life.

By Anne Tan

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