Deacon Michael Berendzen entered the hospital room and introduced himself to a patient in his 20s.
Up went the young man’s hands.
“Whoa! I’m atheist!”
“I’m sorry!” the deacon replied. “It says here you’re Catholic.”
After clearing up the mix-up, Deacon Berendzen said, “Well, I’ll be around. Let me know if I can do anything for you.”
That encounter — one of dozens Deacon Berendzen initiates on any given day — might or might not have been the beginning of something.
It’s all up to God.
“It starts with showing up,” stated Deacon Berendzen, coordinator for Columbia Catholic Hospital Ministry.
“Just being present is often more important than what we say or do,” he said. “Being present opens the door to letting God work through us.”
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight appointed Deacon Berendzen, who also assists the pastor of St. Francis Xavier parish in Taos, to the full-time Columbia position shortly after ordaining him to the permanent diaconate this spring.
His work is supported by donations to the Catholic Stewardship Appeal (CSA).
Deacon Berendzen and longtime hospital chaplain Deacon Gene Kazmierczak visit patients in five Columbia facilities: the University of Missouri Hospital (including the Missouri Orthopedic Institute), Boone Hospital Center, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Landmark Hospital and Rusk Rehabilitation Center.
These health facilities draw patients to Columbia from all over the diocese, the state and even other states.
“Wherever they’re from, if they’re Catholic and they’re in one of these hospitals, they’re one of our parishioners,” said Deacon Berendzen.
He also coordinates the local priests who are on call for emergencies, as well as about 20 lay volunteers who take Holy Communion to Catholic patients.
But most of his time and energy involves one-on-one ministry.
“I visit patients Monday through Friday and weekends and nights as needed,” he said. “I’m basically on call 24/7.”
He works in partnership with the full-time chaplains and pastoral service departments at each of the hospitals he visits.
“We are guests in each of these, not employees,” he noted.
Deacon Berendzen’s ministry is part of the Church’s mandate to visit the sick and to comfort the sorrowing.
Bishop McKnight considers deacons who are involved in hospital ministry to be his personal representatives to people who are sick.
He also sees them as mediators between parishes and their infirm members and families.
“Our mission, our ministry is to be Christ’s presence for those who are in those facilities, whether it’s the patient, the family, the staff,” said Deacon Berendzen.
He enjoys spending time and getting to know the patients and their loved ones.
“I try to bring a sense of humor to it,” he said. “I recently had one family member tell me, ‘Thanks for making us smile.’”
He is acutely aware of the importance of spiritual care in treating a patient.
“That includes their spirit, their soul, their faith, and their family when they’re around,” he said.
He has seen tremendous signs of faith from patients and families, “especially those who may be nearing the end of their earthly life.”
“I see how their faith supports them at those times, and how it supports their family,” he said.
He understands that his work is really God’s.
“As part of my daily prayer, I ask the Lord to let me be the presence of Christ to those I come into contact with,” said Deacon Berendzen.
“I also ask Him that I will recognize Christ in them,” he stated. “He allows me to minister to them and allows me to be ministered to by them.”
“It naturally flowed”
Deacon Berendzen previously served for seven and a half years as associate to the chancellor and as director of the diocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection.
He was in diaconal formation for much of that time and was feeling increasingly drawn to hospital ministry.
“There’s no question that in our life, we should be discerning and looking at the talents God has given us and how we are best using them,” he noted.
In self-reflection and in conversations with other people, he realized that one of his strongest gifts is forging a relational bond with other people.
“I was open to whatever way God was wanting to use me,” he said. “And it naturally flowed, naturally pointed me toward this ministry.”
Deacon Berendzen said the key to ministering to people in a hospital is to be attentive and fully present to them.
“I hear people say, ‘I don’t know what to say in a hospital,’” he said. “But it’s not about you. It’s about the patient and their family. You need to take your cues from them.
“If they would like to pray, we pray,” he said. “If they would like me to contact someone, I do it. If it’s as simple as getting a cup of water, I do it. If they would like to have a priest anoint them or hear their confession, I can arrange that.”
Sometimes he is summoned to visit a patient who is Catholic but no longer actively practices their faith.
“I can listen to them, be present to them, hear what’s in their heart and what their family is saying,” he said. “I can also provide them some options for reuniting with their faith community.”
For some, it’s simply that they can’t get to Mass anymore, so they fall out of touch.
“That’s why it’s important for every parish to have an outreach to homebound parishioners,” he said.
“I really encourage anyone who is unable to leave home to get to Mass at their local church to stay in touch with their parish so someone can visit them and bring them Holy Communion,” he said.
“We are all part of the same community, and we don’t want to forget about them,” he said.
He noted that people who can’t get out, often have time to pray for the needs of the people around them.
“We have potential prayer warriors all over the diocese,” he said. “By drawing on their ability to hold people up in prayer, we help them stay connected while we reap the benefits of their prayers.”
If they are in pain, they can offer that up to God as part of their prayer, he added.
Medical privacy laws restrict the amount of information hospital employees and volunteers can share without the patient’s consent.
Therefore, Deacon Berendzen said it’s important for people who are admitted to a hospital and want to receive pastoral services to notify their parish and the hospital’s spiritual care department.
This can be done ahead of time or while the patient is in the hospital.
He suggested that those who are anticipating surgery or treatment for a major illness make arrangements ahead of time if possible to receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick.
“There are spiritual benefits from receiving these sacraments,” he said.
Deacon Berendzen asks for prayers as he continues his ministry and prepares to undertake additional studies toward becoming a certified hospital chaplain.
“Keep all of us who visit hospitals in prayer, that we would truly be led by the Holy Spirit, to be Christ’s presence to all those we encounter,” he said.
He stands in awe of the work and impressive legacy of all the people who are or were involved in the Columbia Catholic Hospital Ministry since its founding in the late 1970s.
“And we’re also blessed with some very gifted and pastoral priests who share on-call duties and have been an incredible support and resource.”
He said the Church owes a great debt of thanks to all the lay volunteers who visit the sick and bring them Holy Communion.
“Many of them have been doing that for years — bringing Christ on our behalf to people who are sick,” he said.
Deacon Berendzen asks anyone in the Columbia area who would like to volunteer to bring Holy Communion to hospital patients to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.