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- Published: Friday, 30 August 2013 11:44
LIFE STORY: FR ROY O'NEILL MSC
Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,12 Nov 2009
Religion is good medicine. Over the past decade, studies have confirmed spirituality and faith have measurable health benefits and not only promote healing after illness or accidents, but increase longevity. In the US, Duke University's Centre for the Study of Religion, Spirituality and Health, scientists have found that people with an active religious life have spiritual resources that can help them break cycles of addiction, recover from depression and spend less time in hospital. According to latest research, patients who are committed to their faith and involved with their religious communities, are not only mentally and frequently physically healthier than their non-believing counterparts, but also have lower blood pressure, fewer deaths from heart disease and other stress related illnesses.
While such findings may come as a surprise to many, for Fr Roy O'Neill, the Catholic Chaplain at Sydney's sprawling hospital's complex at Randwick NSW they are simply confirmation of what he and the Church have long known. Religious belief contributes to physical, emotional and mental well-being, and is a significant factor in promoting healing.
"There is now a stack of evidence from scientists and researchers worldwide on the positive benefits of spiritual and pastoral care. It doesn't matter whether the patient is a card-carrying Catholic or an Anglican, Buddhist, Muslim or from some other religion. If his or her spiritual needs are met, there is a beneficial effect on the protocol of healing," Fr Roy says.
The positive impact of religion on patients is something Fr Roy has seen first-hand during his 10 years as Chaplain at the Randwick Hospital Complex which includes the Prince of Wales Hospital, both public and private, the Royal Hospital for Women, the Sydney Children's Hospital, and the Euroa and Kiloh Centres which provide psychiatric care.
In addition to his work as a Chaplain at the hospitals where Catholic patients number 250 across the Campus on any one day, Fr Roy has written at length about the power of faith and spirituality and their significance in helping patients heal as part of thesis for his Master of Ministry degree, entitled "Moments of Grace and Blessing: Rites and Rituals in the Process of Healing."
Being a Chaplain is an Extraordinary Gift. However, the friendly, down-to-earth, good-humoured, Queenslander, admits that when he was first ordained, he never expected to work in a hospital.
"But while I may not have chosen to become a hospital chaplain, my 10 years at Randwick have been in one sense the most rewarding – a loaded word but I can't think of another word to explain how I feel - and the most touching ministry I have ever been involved with. At times the work can be heartbreaking and is always highly emotionally charged, but against the tragedy and sadness there is the joy of someone making it against all odds or of babies being born and new life created."
Fr Roy also believes a hospital Chaplain is particularly privileged. "It is an extraordinary gift to be invited to be with people at the most sacred moments of life, whether entering or leaving life. It is a wonderfully trusting position to be in - to have people trust you at the happy times of their lives as well as the critical times."
He becomes impatient, however, with the popular misconception that a priests' primary function as a hospital Chaplain is to administer "Last Rites" to the dying. Not only is "Last Rites" a misnomer, a term not so much used now by the Church or Catholics, but a hospital Chaplain's role is far more broad and, as stated earlier, an integral part of the healing process.
At the Randwick Hospital Campus, the Catholic Chaplaincy comprises Fr Roy and Sister Ann Duncan of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and is backed up by two parish priests from the nearby Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, Randwick who are also part-time chaplains at the Campus and can step in when needed. Priests at the parishes of Rosebery, Coogee and Maroubra Beach are also on call. But the main work is carried out by Fr Roy who celebrates a Mass for staff, patients and families at noon every Wednesday in the hospital complex' small chapel, as well as celebrating a 3 pm Mass there on the first, third and any fifth Sunday each month.
A Chapel for All Faiths
"As well as Sister Ann and myself there are two Anglican Chaplains, a Salvation Army chaplain, a Jewish Rabbi, several Muslim Chaplins, a Presbyterian chaplain, a Uniting Church Chaplain and two Buddhist Chaplains and we all share the chapel," says Fr Roy who dismisses the controversy earlier this year over Crucifixes and other Christian symbols having to be stored between services as nothing more than a "media created beat-up."
"The chapel at Randwick was built six years ago after the previous one in the old P.O.W. huts at the back of the Campus burned down. Both the new and old chapels which date back more than 20 years have always been multi-faith and for the new chapel, all of us from the various different chaplaincies got together to raise the money to have it built."
According to Fr Roy as with the previous chapel, each group of specific religious symbols is kept in cupboards within the chapel and brought out when needed whether it is a Jewish Menora, the Koran and compass showing the direction of Mecca or the Chalice and Crucifixes of the Catholic faith.
Each day after arriving at the Hospitals' Campus around 7.00 am, Fr Roy checks the lists of patients and noting any recent admissions who have nominated themselves as Catholic, and begins his visits of the various wards to speak with new arrivals as well as those who been in hospital for several days, weeks or even months. These visits also include talking with families and one ward he is particularly close to C2West which is the cancer ward at the Sydney Children's Hospital.
Ministering to children battling terminal illnesses might seem grim but for Fr Roy both the children and their families fill him with inspiration and humility. "This is where you meet the human spirit at its most amazing," he says. "The children and their families are just outstanding people and from a spiritual aspect you really do see God's presence in the midst of suffering." He pauses for a moment. "It's hard to put into words but possibly the best way to describe this is to use a slogan that was once for a vocations centre: "God only knows what work a priest does."
He smiles then adds: "One of the nicest things about this work is that often having tried to assist and support people through tragedies or critical times, they frequently contact me later to ask if I'll celebrate a marriage or a baptism or some other joyous family occasions."
Religious Instruction by Correspondence
Growing up on a sugarcane farm in Finch Hatton in Northern Queensland, 73 km west of Mackay, Fr Roy was the youngest of three children by 13 years and grew up with his cousins for playmates rather than siblings. But in a rare occurrence, his cousins were closer than most. His father's younger brother had married his mother's younger sister. "So I had double cousins and they lived next door," he laughs.
His father was Catholic and his mother, formerly a Congregationalist converted to the Catholic faith on marriage. "My parents were religious in the right sense of the word," Fr Roy says. "We went to Mass on Sundays and they were always conscious of the social needs of the community, not just of Catholics but everyone. From them I learned tolerance. Dad was also Chairman of the local council."
But it was his parents' generous giving hearts he remembers most and he treasures the remark from a local who approached him in middle age after his mother had died to tell him how kind she'd been to him, and the meals she had given him as a young cane cutter. "If it hadn't been for your mother, I'd have been in gaol a long time ago," he told Fr Roy.
As a child, Fr Roy attended a tiny primary school in Pinnacle where he received his first-ever formal religious instruction by correspondence with Sister Mary Loyola who was based in Rockhampton. "She was a Sister of Mercy and well ahead of her time, organising religious education by correspondence for kids in State schools along the lines of Distance education," he says. "Our Parish Priest, Fr Hayes from our parish of Francis de Sales was also a major influence on me as a child and I clearly remember him teaching myself and several other sons of cane farmers, the responses to the Latin Mass, sitting under the house of one of our neighbours!"
For his secondary education, Fr Roy became a boarder at Downlands College, Toowoomba, which was run by the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. "I am not sure how or exactly when I decided my vocation was to be a priest. It was a gradual realisation and probably began in childhood," he says.
Latin a Prerequisite to Train as a Priest
On leaving school, Fr Roy was keen to enter the seminary but first he needed to do senior Latin. "It was 1963 and in those days Latin was a requirement and you couldn't get into a Seminary without it." Finally, Latin and other subjects under his belt, Fr Roy began his training to become a priest with the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart. During his Apostolic year he taught at Monivae College in Hamilton, Victoria and discovered he loved teaching. Ordained on May 24 1975 he returned to West Victoria to teach as the school' senior English master and in 1982 found himself back at his old school, Downlands College, but this time as one of the Senior Boarding Masters. "The kids used to wonder how I knew where to catch them smoking!" he grins.
By 1986, however, Fr Roy finally fulfilled his dream working in an overseas mission at Hagita High School in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. But within a short time he was back in Australia and principal of Downland College. His next role was as Vocations Director at the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Sydney then in 1997 he took a Sabbatical Year to Ireland before taking up a position in Fiji where the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart were building a Seminary. Then in 2000, he was appointed as Hospital Chaplain at the Randwick Campus.
"What is most important for a hospital chaplain is his compassion and humanity," he says. "Some people who may turn to him for comfort and help may not have been closely associated with the Church for many years and you need to connect with them in a way they feel comfortable. It is very much a ministerial role in a hospital setting and a necessary skill is the ability to just be with people, wherever they may be on their faith journey, and to work out how best to meet their spiritual needs. Doctrine and dogma take a backseat to compassion and understanding."