Was the world ready for this curate?

DICK WILSON: Roman Catholic ViewpointJuly 31 1964 is a significant date for me for on that day I was released on the unsuspecting public and took up my first appointment, as junior curate at St John's, Norwich (now the cathedral).

July 31 1964 is a significant date for me for on that day I was released on the unsuspecting public and took up my first appointment, as junior curate at St John's, Norwich (now the cathedral).

It was widely taught in those days that a junior curate enjoyed only one right - to that of Christian burial. Now he has the choice of burial or cremation. On my first day my fellow curate took me to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and for the first time did what over the next 40 years became an active part of my ministry - hospital visiting.

Like many others I knew nothing about hospitals having never been in one as a patient and having a vague idea of how hospitals functioned (derived in part from the film Carry On, Nurse). In those days members of each denomination were visited by the appropriate chaplain whereas now, the patient has to request a chaplain to visit.

Some patients I visited were connected to the church by breach rather than observance. One I visited was a member of a pop group. Now I know as little about the pop scene as Nelson Mandela knows about sumo wrestling and I embarked on the first of many bedside chats that were heavy going. I did quickly learn that generally speaking members of pop groups are not widely interested in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

On more than one occasion there was mutual relief when a nurse came to get a blood sample.

While many of the RCs I visited were nominal members of the church, some used the opportunity to tell me about the clergy in their parish and their virtues and vices. Some of the more enthusiastic would indulge in a history of all the clergy they have known in the last 70 years (such clergy historians I refer to as “Rev Counters”).

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While some patients welcomed the opportunity to talk about their concerns, others found it hard to talk. A nurse told me that the time when patients are most relaxed is when they are having a blanket bath. I found that of little help to me. I cannot visualise the confessional giving place in churches to the jacuzzi.

The maternity wards of all the hospitals I visited were a source of joy with a tinge of sadness from time to time. I was surprised at the reaction of some of the very young mothers. A few did not even know the name of the father of their child though they were confident that they would marry. A less sombre note - I recall the skinhead mother who proved heredity by producing a skinhead baby.

I would like to tell you that I was always a comfort to the patients but that would not be true. Some when they saw me coming would hide in the bathroom or feign sleep. I have been recognised as a specialist - my sermons have been seen as an anaesthetic.

I have occasionally met hostility, once meeting a lady in the ward who screamed at me “What the hell do you want?” I told her I was judging the ward beauty competition and she had won. Of course many in hospital are seriously ill. Meeting them I have been inspired by their patience and courage. I particularly mention the Hospice Movement which I see as a giant step forward in medicine.

I believe in the great value of the NHS. I like to think that the chaplains play their part, continuing the mission of Jesus to comfort the sick. I have fought a losing battle to abandon the term “last rites” as applied to the seriously ill. I usually stressed that the correct term in many of the Christian churches is “The Sacrament of the Sick,” with the seriously sick and the elderly eligible to be anointed. In view of my vast age I have received the sacrament several times at services for the sick. It is not the “Last Rites.” Indeed once we receive it there is no obligation to die.

One memory - a patient was having a very minor operation. I pulled the curtains aside and the man gasped “It's not that serious, is it?” Round my neck I was wearing a stole, a vestment not unlike a tape measure. What would you think if a man appeared before an operation dressed in black with a tape measure round his neck…?

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