Sharing God's Embrace: Pediatric Chaplaincy

by Anne-Marie O'Riordan

‘Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”’(Mt 19.14)

It is an enormous privilege to enable a child to encounter God in the midst of their suffering. In my experience prayer often starts as a simple conversation in which the deep needs of the sick child resonate with the unspoken needs of parents and family members.

In all encounters, I try to see children with God’s eyes and enable them to feel God’s great love. No matter how young I affirm their dignity and worth. I tend to begin my prayers by giving thanks for the child and the blessing of their life, conveying prayerfully how God sees and cherishes this child. I acknowledge the brokenness of this world which is not as it should be. Nonetheless, in the mystery of Creation I try to help families and their children become aware of a loving God who is greater than their pain and suffering, who can be trusted despite their circumstances.

It can be difficult to enable children to relate to God personally using words alone. Therefore, I try to harness the power of children’s imagination. Just as Jesus spoke in parables using strong narrative images, symbols and pictures can convey meaning simply. I have often used the image of the Good Shepherd and introduced this parable in a simple way by encouraging them to imagine themselves as the lamb Jesus goes in search of and carries to safety on his shoulders.

When relating to older children I find it helpful to open with general chit chat. It’s important to take the time to establish some trust and then ask them what they would like to say to God. Whenever possible, give children a voice.

My role also involves sacramental duties such as emergency baptisms, giving Communion, and occasionally I have been asked to lead memorial services. For the most part, however, this role is about relationships. As a paediatric chaplain you need to be willing to meet people where they are and inhabit the hidden, in-between spaces: those grey, paradoxical and mysterious places which do not offer easy nor clear-cut answers.

Christ touched the wounds of the afflicted. He entered into their suffering and chaplains are called to do the same. I try not to be afraid to accompany parents as they enter the darkness and pain of their situation. Sometimes prayers and words are insufficient. Being patient and willing to take the time to listen and not fill in the silence can help parents and children to express themselves or simply feel held by God.

Sometimes I am involved in helping a child come to terms with their imminent death. In my experience, children accept that they are dying earlier than family members, often holding out until parents are ready to say goodbye. Children like honesty and they respond best when the truth is given to them straight but with kindness.

Finally, to my surprise I have discovered that this ministry works both ways. Children emanate a light all of their own which has touched my heart many times. I have learnt so much from children. Even in the crucible of their sickness, the light of Christ shines very brightly.

Anne Marie O’Riordan is chaplain at Great Ormond Street Hospital.