Out in a medium security prison in the west of Dublin city, an inmate is for the third time moved down the list of names for transferring to a new room in the prison. Gary is, by his own account, a model inmate with no history of violence or drug use while incarcerated. On finding his name has once again been arbitrarily bumped down the list for the third time, frustration continues building in him. He hates his current room because his neighbours are constantly playing music from their cells. He just wants somewhere quieter to sleep. Claiming that “the guards don’t do anything for you unless you give them trouble”, Gary is becoming more agitated by the day as he waits to be moved, pacing up and down the corridors, eyeballing the prison guards he knows to be in charge of transfers. He doesn’t say so openly, but his thoughts are dark.
Sister Irene comes across him on one of her rounds visiting the inmates. One of the four members of the chaplaincy team, Sister Irene immediately recognises that the prison guards have again ignored the request of a well-behaved inmate in favour of moving troublesome cases away from their friends, and she recognises that Gary’s patience has almost been stretched to breaking point. She quickly moves to save him from himself. Beginning by talking to him about his wife and kids from the outset, to remind him of why he has suffered quietly for this long, Sister Irene listens to the stories of anger and frustration Gary has about the guards, the inmates, and everything in between. She hears every word of what he has to say, sympathises with his plight, and urges him to hold out just that little bit longer. Promising to speak with the guards on his behalf, and also to arrange for a phonecall home, Sister Irene blesses him and moves on to the next inmate who is looking for her. There are over 450 other prisoners, drug users and violent offenders of various stripes, all locked up in the same building and who may at any time seek her services. There is no time to reflect on Gary’s predicament, there is no room for self-doubt or hesitation in responding to his pain. She moves constantly through the stressful environment of prison, where again and again she must offer warmth, empathy and sound judgement, all without being exhausted by the anger, despair and fear of the people around her. In the old days, we might have called such a person a saint.
The chaplaincy service is often poorly understood. It is not a glamorous job, and the positive effects chaplains can have on those in their care are often invisible from the outside. From crowds of caged criminals, to hospital patients suffering painful and sometimes terminal illnesses, or to soldiers on peacekeeping missions in war-torn countries; chaplains work with people having the most difficult experiences of their lives. Incredibly, there are significant numbers of religious chaplains currently employed by the state, of whom Catholic chaplains make up the vast majority. With prison chaplains on the payroll of the Irish Prison Service and healthcare chaplains on the payroll of the Health Service Executive (HSE), it is easy to see that Ireland is not yet a secular country. There is a problem with this, however, but it is only secularists, humanists, and atheists who can see it as it is. There is simply no reason to think that a degree in theology will help you in any way in being good at this job. In a society where most people rarely go to church, don’t pray, and don’t read the Bible, it seems crazy to train what should be frontline mental health workers in the writings of a centuries-old mythology that is all but forgotten in modern Irish society.
As humanism grows, and religion continues its slow death, it is imperative that we do not allow the powerful altruistic institutions that the church has created to fall along with its ancient ideology. At this moment in history, we are in the unique position of being able to recreate, define, and vastly improve services like the chaplaincy in serving the needs of our communities. As humanists, our goals ought not to be merely the spread of secular beliefs in society, but should ultimately encompass any service we can provide that will make people’s lives better, and make the world a better place. We now have the opportunity to build a better chaplaincy, without spreading confusing mythology, or worse, forcing some of the most altruistic and giving people on Earth into the life of a lonely spinster or bachelor. Our chaplaincy can be different. Instead of pretending to know things they don’t know, our chaplains will be free to say what they think, and to experience the world as it really is. Instead of forcing chaplains to fear sex, ours will be free to fall in love, and to raise a family. Chaplains work in the toughest workplaces in society, and their job is to spread the core values that Humanists aspire to: wisdom, courage, humanity, honesty, and transcendence of the petty indignities life throws our way. The job of the chaplains, and indeed of the humanist celebrants, is to bring our gaze back to the big picture, and to see the meaning of the most important moments of our lives. It is important that our Irish Humanist organisations do whatever they can to aid development and deployment of these services. We must do this. for the good of the humanist cause, for the good of the organisations in question, and ultimately for the good of all of society.