By Mary Morrell, Correspondent

Tucked away in a diocesan resource manual of 12 training sessions and seemingly innumerable pages is a short reflection by Henri J. M. Nouwen: “The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”

The manual is for the diocesan Pastoral Care Ministries Training Program, provided to participants session-by-session as they move toward completion of the training program. The quote, which comes from Nouwen’s 1989 book, “In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership,” underscores the theology and the mission of pastoral care ministry.

Deanna Sass, diocesan director, Department of Pastoral Care, explained that she developed the training program in 2006-2007 when she came on board as diocesan director. At the time, there was no standardized training program for parish volunteers, so she set about developing a universal training program “that would truly prepare all pastoral volunteers to provide competent and compassionate pastoral care on a consistent basis.”

She expressed her hope that the program would serve those who offer pastoral care not only to the sick and dying, but also to those in jails and prisons, and that it would be a resource for ministry to the bereaved, separated and divorced, seniors and other groups.

The comprehensive program, which has run in the Diocese for nearly 10 years, includes 12 workshops totaling more than 30 hours of training on topics such as theological foundations, spirituality for ministry, nuts and bolts of pastoral ministry, practical listening skills, how to lead Communion rituals, planning a Christian funeral, and how to lead a successful support group. An average of 30-40 professional ministers and volunteers complete the training annually, and hail from all four counties of the Diocese, and other areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Recently, the diocesan Pastoral Care Training Program received high praise from the National Association of Catholic Chaplains when David Lichter, executive director, shared with Sass that the program is considered by the association to be a “best practice” that could be emulated by other dioceses.  

Lichter shared with The Monitor that the NACC has been involved in a collaborative planning process and development of national competencies for pastoral care ministry, as a resource for dioceses and parishes, indicating “we will be wanting to include in our work, moving forward, the programs of dioceses that have in place the type of high quality and proven effectiveness, such as Trenton’s.”

Sass said she was honored with the praise from the NACC, and added that she had been getting similar feedback over the years.  She said, “I have been hearing the same from diocesan directors around the country, from our program participants who write to me years after taking the program to share stories of how what they learned made a tangible difference in specific pastoral situations, and from our sisters and brothers in Christian denominations, who are so grateful to be able to attend our program, because there is ‘nothing like it’ offered in their own tradition.”

The Diocese of Trenton’s program, Lichter said, “grounds itself strongly in a theology of ministry that is a participation in the healing ministry of Jesus. It is not an individual ministry, but a call within and on behalf of the ecclesial community and … emphasizes a pastoral spirituality. That is, the person providing this ministry needs a deeply personal relationship with God through prayer and reflection, and be open to grow humanly and spiritually through his/her encounter with others.”

In addition, he said, “The program provides strong content in bereavement, as well as the practical (aspects) … of pastoral care. These are very important to every program, especially for volunteers who have not done such pastoral care visits.”

Lichter also expressed appreciation for “a very strong faculty who have theological, pastoral and specialized ministry experience.”

Included within this group, said Sass, are board-certified chaplains, social workers, psychologists, canon lawyers, medical doctors, nurses, priests, spiritual directors, ethicists, liturgists, parish administrators, deacons, religious sisters, theologians and pastoral ministers. “I feel that God has blessed the Diocese of Trenton with so many talented and generous people in every walk of ministry, who are willing to share what they know with others,” she added.

Reflecting on the popularity of the program, Sass said, “Some [participants] come because of their own interest, others are sent by their pastors.  Some pastors send whole teams to be trained for a particular ministry.”

Looking toward the future, Sass hopes to be able to live stream or record the sessions, to make the benefits of the program more widely available to those interested in it from around the globe.

The 2017-18 training program begins Nov.  17. To register online go to dioceseoftrenton.org/pastoral-care. For more information call 609-403-7157.