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Spiritual Care: The Everyday Work of Chaplains

"By letting chaplains tell their stories, Cadge allows readers to understand their motivations, individual approaches and perceptions of the significance of their service."

Wendy Cadge
Oxford University Press, 256 pages | Published November 29, 2022

In the introduction to her new book, Spiritual Care: The Everyday Work of Chaplains, Wendy Cadge says her purpose is to help readers see the work of chaplains and integrate it into their understanding of American religious life. She succeeds wonderfully. The result is a narrative that will be of interest to anyone interested in learning about the myriad roles chaplains play.

Cadge’s primary approach is to focus on Boston organizations that used chaplains during 2016 and 2017, although she also describes the role of chaplains during other major events in the city’s history. She begins with a vivid account of a Catholic priest and prison chaplain bringing about a peaceful end to a multi-day prison standoff in 1955. Some of her most memorable writing involves chaplains serving during disasters; describing a 1972 hotel fire, Cadge writes, “(f)irefighters battled the blaze all afternoon when an adjacent building unexpectedly collapsed, killing nine firefighters and injuring nine others. Reports described Catholic chaplain James Keating crawling into the rubble to administer last rites to two firefighters whose bodies could not be quickly recovered.” Again, readers see that chaplains may be called to risk their lives and health for their call.

Cadge highlights both the ordinary and the extraordinary. When chaplains sprang into action following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, news reports “described patients and staff members at Boston Medical Center talking and praying with chaplains who also provided for things as seemingly mundane as finding outlets to charge phones.” Pastoral care can mean prayer, conversation or basic practical help.

By letting chaplains tell their stories, Cadge allows readers to understand their motivations, individual approaches and perceptions of the significance of their service. Cadge quotes chaplains “describing ‘God’s tugging at my coat’ and ‘developing a hospice heart’ as part of what led them to this work.” Others share their approaches to cultivating trust through ongoing relationship building. A fire department chaplain, for example, talks with firefighters about everything from cars to fishing trips “so you can get that thing going so when that train wreck comes, it is a wide-open door.” Cadge is at her most brilliant in a chapter about chaplains’ roles at times of death. She invites chaplains to share their most meaningful encounters; a hospice chaplain, for example, discusses helping family members learn ways to comfort their dying loved ones.

Cadge has an excellent sense of pacing and organization. She uses storytelling to grab and hold the readers’ attention and ends each chapter with a clear indication of where she is going. She concludes with good suggestions as to how chaplaincy can continue to move forward. There are, however, some places where more explanation would have helped; for example, she mentions Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) – a method of training chaplains – without sufficient detail as to how CPE works. This is a minor criticism, though, as this book provides terrific insights into the world of chaplains. It is beautifully written and a joy to read.

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