To craft prayers that resonate, writers listen deeply to patients and colleagues

April 1, 2015


Sr. Renee Yann, RSM, has offered prayers in Catholic health care settings for more than 30 years. Her capacity to inspire and comfort through prayer has deepened through experience, active listening and learning from what didn't go over so well. One anecdote comes to mind:

Susanne DeCrane takes part in a 150th Anniversary Mass of Thanksgiving she organized in 2014 as vice president of mission integration at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center of Towson, Md.

Decades ago, when she was a hospice pastoral counselor and emergency room patient relations coordinator at the hospital now known as Mercy Philadelphia Hospital, she prayed with a terminally ill African-American Baptist patient nicknamed Peach. Despite his poor health, Peach seemed filled with joy in his life. Sr. Yann recalled she offered "my little white Irish Catholic prayer." And Peach replied: "You're not very good at this are you?" Encounters with patients like Peach, who had a deep and quietly profound faith, helped her to better realize how to first listen to people, hear their needs, and to then pray more fully with them.

Sr. Yann went on to become known in Catholic circles for her ability to craft eloquent prayers. As Catholic Health World went to press, she was days away from retiring as senior vice president and chief mission integration officer of the secular AmeriHealth Caritas in Philadelphia and looking forward to the time retirement will afford her to concentrate on writing poetry and reflections.

Know your audience
At Catholic hospitals and continuing care facilities, meetings and gatherings, mission leaders and chaplains are called on to offer prayers and reflections to inspire and comfort. They tailor prayers to the setting and occasion. An important part of their work also is to coordinate with employees across their ministries to foster an environment where all who wish to pray can do so. They do this in part by sharing their original reflections and by providing resources and education on how to lead prayer and reflections.

Sr. Yann said she considers prayer a term to describe communication with God. Reflection is a way of "looking at our lives to better understand their deep spiritual dimension," she explained.

Sr. Yann described four types of prayer: petition, adoration/praise, contrition and thanksgiving. While no one type of prayer trumps another, the variant styles call to mind for her the way a child grows in relationship to a parent.

She explained: "When we are very young, our primary conversation is to ask for things, or petition. As we mature, we learn the meaning and importance of saying 'I love you,' 'I'm sorry,' 'Thank you for loving me.' Each of these dimensions deepens our relationship." Each type of prayer has a role in a health care setting, too. A prayer leader "might invite the community to thank God for the gift of work," for instance.

Active listening
Mission leaders including Sr. Yann say one of the best ways they formulate prayers is by listening to patients and co-workers at their organizations, to truly hear their concerns, needs and joys. For a prayer offered to colleagues or a group, they think about the shared experience of the community: Has the group just weathered a natural disaster or the loss of a valued community member? What is the faith background of group members? What are they trying to accomplish moving forward?

A prayer with a patient or patient's family member might draw closely from what that individual is seeking in the moment.

Susanne DeCrane, vice president of mission integration at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center of Towson, Md., said she uses open-ended questions when listening to people seeking spiritual support. She said if someone close to them has died, she acknowledges their loss, and then asks questions such as: Tell me what you are feeling right now. Tell me about her, what was she like? DeCrane listens for cues about what their needs are, often to incorporate into a prayer. "If you listen, you'll hear what you need to pick up," she explained.

DeCrane said many people mistakenly think there's a "right" way to pray. Mission leaders in Catholic health care settings can help alleviate those concerns by letting people know that expressing what's in their own hearts is more important than trying to get their prayer "right."

She said before meetings at St. Joseph Medical Center, people take turns offering a prayer or reflection. If it's been a long day, and she needs to offer a prayer that she hasn't known to prepare in advance: "I keep it simple, and I keep it honest — acknowledging the fatigue," she said.

Bedside and beyond
DeCrane said it's helpful in a Catholic health care facility to create an environment where there is no wrong door to spiritual support. Patients can request a chaplain visit at the time of admission or anytime during their hospitalization, a nurse may ask whether her patient would welcome such a visit, a doctor may bring a chaplain along when delivering bad news to a patient.

Laura Richter, Ascension Health senior director of mission integration, listed a number of events where prayers are offered at Ascension beyond the patient bedside including employee meetings, a memorial for a patient or staffer, a blessing of the hands of clinicians particularly as part of special recognition weeks like National Hospital Week or National Nurses Week, a blessing of a new space, the commissioning of new leaders, awards ceremonies, formation opportunities and associate retreats.

She gathers relevant information before writing a prayer or reflection at someone's request, such as what a meeting will be about, who will attend, the history of the group, the outcome the person hopes for. "I put myself in the situation. What might be meaningful to this group? What might touch them? I work carefully to think through how do I tailor something to meet people where they're at."

At a conference on managing health care risk that included a lot of lawyers from outside of Ascension, she began the gathering with a photo montage, so they could see the work of the ministry and learn about Ascension's mission and values. To foster cohesion among Ascension associates participating in a national conference call, she assigned participants to read aloud sections of the opening prayer. Richter said she talks and listens to colleagues "so I know the pulse of the organization." She said tapping into people's shared experiences in a prayer or reflection often resonates with a group.

She may incorporate a poem, an image of an artwork, a biblical passage or a video as a tool to encourage reflection or prayer. "I like to switch it up," Richter said.

Sources of inspiration
John Wallenhorst is Bon Secours Health System's senior vice president of mission and ethics. Monday through Friday and sometimes on the weekend, he emails a prayer or reflection to a list of about 1,500 mission leaders and employees, who in turn share it with other employees.

He references the Catholic liturgical calendar as part of his planning, and thinks about appropriate messages for the season or commemoration, such as Advent or a major feast day. He also writes reflections that tie into dates of historic or cultural import such as the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and appreciations such as the annual National Nurses Week. Wallenhorst said he draws from the Catholic tradition in crafting reflections, but he also aims for inclusion, purposefully appealing to the spirituality of a broad constituency that includes several faith backgrounds.

DeCrane distributes "Grace Notes," a spiritual reflection, online on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. She finds inspiration in Scripture passages, lines from songs, photos and quotes. Employees tell her they value these emails. "They know they can open the Grace Note, and it won't be bad news."

Suggested resources for inspiration for prayers and reflections
Ministry mission leaders and executives Sr. Renee Yann, RSM; John Wallenhorst; Susanne DeCrane; and Laura Richter sometimes return to favorite sources for inspiration in writing prayers. Among their favorites: Authors

Paula D'Arcy

D'Arcy, a writer, retreat leader and speaker, is also the president of Red Bird Foundation, which supports growth and spiritual development. A former psychotherapist who ministered to those experiencing grief and loss, D'Arcy has written 10 books including Gift of the Red Bird: The Story of a Divine Encounter.

Ruth C. Duck

Duck is a professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. She wrote Finding Words for Worship: A Guide for Leaders and Worship for the Whole People of God: Vital Worship for the 21st Century.

Fr. Edward M. Hays

Fr. Hays is the author of more than 30 books on contemporary spirituality, including Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim: A Personal Manual for Prayer and Ritual.

John O'Donohue

O'Donohue was an Irish poet and philosopher, who lectured throughout Europe and the United States. He wrote a number of books, including Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom and To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings.

Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB

Br. Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine monk who often focuses on the importance of gratefulness in his work including Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness.

Sr. Joyce Rupp, OSM

Sr. Rupp, a member of the Servants of Mary community, is a writer and retreat and conference speaker. Her most recent book is Fly While You Still Have Wings: And Other Lessons My Resilient Mother Taught Me. Some of her other books include May I Have This Dance?: An Invitation to Faithful Prayer throughout the Year and Praying Our Goodbyes: A Spiritual Companion through Life's Losses and Sorrows.

Sr. Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB

Sr. Wiederkehr is a retreat guide and author and lives with the monastic community of St. Scholastica in Fort Smith, Ark. The Benedictine traditions of deep listening to God's word and hospitality toward all life are foundational to her writing. Sr. Wiederkehr has written several books, including Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully Through the Hours of the Day and The Circle of Life: The Heart's Journey Through the Seasons, which she co-authored with Sr. Joyce Rupp.


Beliefnet, a property of BN Media, is an online resource for inspiration and spirituality.

This website serves as a prayer database. It is run by World Prayers Project, a nonprofit.

This prayer site is a joint apostolate of the Irish Jesuits and Loyola Press.

A website with resources for spiritual journeys. Authors Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat serve as the website's directors.


CHA provides prayer resources at
Ascension's guide on "Leading Group Prayer and Reflection"


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