Interview: Hospital Chaplain Lilia Matwijiw Sorokowska

Lilia Matwijiw Sorokowska holds a Certificate in Theology from the St. Andrew’s College in Winnipeg, which is a Ukrainian-Canadian academic institution sponsored by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada and affiliated with the University of Manitoba.  Lilia, who also has completed the Clinical Pastoral Education program at the University of Manitoba, works as a chaplain at a Winnipeg hospital. She speaks to New Pathway’s Olena Wawryshyn about her work and the role of women in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada.

NP: What spurred you to study theology?

LMS: I grew up in a fairly devout Orthodox family where involvement in the Church was a way of life. I began teaching Sunday School in my teen years and continued to teach for 34 years, including teaching adults. Teaching naturally inspired my own questions about God and the meaning of life, and the more I began reading and researching, the more I felt the need to enter a program of studies and enrolled at St. Andrew’s College.

NP: You currently work at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg as a hospital chaplain. How did you enter this field, and what requirements did you have to meet?

LMS: When I was completing a Certificate in Theology from St. Andrew's College, the then Dean of Theology suggested that I might be interested in applying for the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program offered by the University of Winnipeg’s Faculty of Theology. I applied, was interviewed and accepted to the Health Sciences Centre, one of the clinical training sites offered in the CPE program.

When a paid position for a chaplain was offered during my training at Health Sciences Centre, I was hired.

Chaplaincy requirements are in accordance with the Canadian Association of Pastoral Practice and Education. In addition to obtaining set academic standards, the candidate must be ordained or hold a Letter of Mandate to Minister from a recognized faith denomination. My Letter of Mandate to Minister, signed by the late Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, His Beatitude Metropolitan Wasyly, states that I am permitted to minister in a healthcare facility or hospital and I honour and respect those boundaries.

NP:“Chaplain” usually refers to male clergy, yet, you are a non-ordained female in the Orthodox Church. Can you explain this term?

 LMS: The term “chaplain” does not at all apply to me within the Orthodox Church. As a female, I am not ordained in any kind of clergy ranks for this hospital ministry, nor do I have the calling, interest, or desire to be ordained to the priesthood. I have always strongly emphasized this. The term “chaplain” is a hospital designation. Neither Orthodox nor Catholics acknowledge this term for females, so using the term has been controversial to say the least.  Recently, however, our spiritual care staff “chaplains” have been renamed “Spiritual Care Specialists,” a change of title which may serve to alleviate at least some of the controversy.

NP: You have worked in various hospital wards. What can you as a chaplain offer patients over and above what the medical and social-work professions can offer them?

LMS:  A person being hospitalized for any illness may certainly experience various levels of anxiety and spiritual distress. While the medical profession can minister to the person’s physical condition, and social work to the psychological/emotional aspects of the person’s condition, the spiritual part of the human person is generally acknowledged in a more direct way by the chaplain.

The chaplain does this through focusing on the person’s relationship with self, God and others. While it is true that some professions, like nursing for example, have now embraced spirituality in their education programs, these programs are not typically God-centred; they tend to use generic “soul speak” and not specific “God speak.”

The chaplain can offer the person “God speak,” a reconnection with God to move toward a right relationship with Him. The chaplain may help the person work through a spiritually distressing issue that may accompany psychiatric illness such as, for example, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or, the chaplain may ease the distress of a person experiencing religious delusions or psychotic episodes and help them to regain their ground.

Through spiritual care, prayer and counsel, the chaplain might help the person work through the spiritual distress that could appear with serious illness and end-of-life issues, and bring that person renewed hope and faith through reconciling a relationship with self, God and others.  The chaplain can do this groundwork with the patient and call the priest to administer Sacraments to complete the healing process.

NP: How do your patients respond to the fact that you are a female chaplain?

LMS: The large majority of patients have responded positively to my being a female chaplain. There have been observations and positive comments made that I have the ability to build trust and rapport in relationships, the ability to respect a person’s vulnerabilities, to listen empathetically and to journey with a person through his/her health experience – and these gifts have served me well in ministering to patients’ needs.

I have received many cards, letters of thanks, warm hugs, firm handshakes and kind words from patients or their families, affirming that my ministry was valued in their time of need. These have been heart-warming validations for me of how necessary and significant this kind of ministry is.

NP: How have Ukrainian-Canadian patients reacted?

LMS: I have had warm responses from the Ukrainian-Canadian patients that I have seen. Some were curious as to my role within the hospital, while others were simply pleased to have me visit.  Those who were from out of town were surprised and appreciated having this “Ukrainian Orthodox connection” that I would take one step further by offering to call in an Orthodox priest to see them.

NP: The 2000 Sobor of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada set up a Standing Committee on Gender and Family Issues. You served on the previous committee, the Women’s Issues and the Orthodox Church Committee. What is the difference between these two committees? And, is enough being done to address the issue of women in the Church?

LMS: The previous, Women’s Issues and the Orthodox Church Committee, was struck in order to prepare and present a report outlining women’s issues relative to changing roles in society and therefore in the Church. The Committee members drew up 24 recommendations that were accepted at Sobor 2000.  In a nutshell, these recommendations dealt with such issues as encouraging theological education for women, implementing theological courses in gender issues into the theology program, so that courses in Lay Pastoral Ministry be offered specific to women’s health and spiritual issues, that the Order of Deaconess be reestablished, that women be encouraged to take leadership roles and more active roles in the Services of the Church such as cantoring, and so on.

Once the recommendations were accepted during the Sobor, suddenly a change of committee name to “Gender and Family Issues” was proposed and accepted. Then the focus of this new committee appeared to take an entirely different direction. No longer did it seem concerned with “women’s issues and the Orthodox Church,” which are very specific and important issues, but instead it took on the focus of “gender and family issues.” So the women’s issues, changing roles in society, special theology courses in gender issues, courses in Lay Pastoral Ministry, and so on, still remain unaddressed five years after the recommendations were accepted. Therefore, it appears that not nearly enough is being done to address the issue of women in the Church, beginning with understanding women’s changing role in society and how that role will impact the Church.