“Music Man” Chaplain Charles Heals Spirits

He who sings, prays twice.” The words of the ancient philosopher St. Augustine come to mind when Chaplain Charles Kibirige’s sings  to patients and visitors at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland.

Although music was a constant in his life growing up with his now deceased musician dad Henry Kasule, Chaplain Charles said his love of music flourished while he was in seminary. He attended Katigondo National Seminary and Ggaba National Seminary in Uganda where he completed degrees in philosophy and theology respectively.

Between 2001 and 2013, Chaplain Charles served the community of Ann Arbor as an ordained priest. In 2003 he was hired as one of the Priest Chaplains at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor where served for 10 years and where he also started his career as a health care chaplain. After voluntarily leaving the active ministry, Chaplain Charles accepted his current role of full-time chaplain at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in 2014.

“I never saw myself as an entertainer but rather as someone who wanted to use my gift of music to bring comfort and healing to others,” said Chaplain Charles.  “I’ve always wanted to bring music into my healing ministry. In fact, I have been, for some time now, using music as therapy when working with patients on the Behavioral Health Unit here at SJMO and it has been well received by both the patients and the staff on the unit. However, I knew I needed to extend this further into my ministry on other units.”

Chaplain Charles started to bring his guitar to the 2 p.m. prayer service he holds in the ICU waiting room. Although he doesn’t play every time, he uses it as a way to be present with people as well as to start a deeper conversation on their presenting health issues.

Chaplain Charles recalls one of these conversations with a young mother and her 4-year-old son who were visiting a family member. He played one of the theme songs from Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse show. The little boy could not help but sing along with excitement. This moment opened the door to a deeper conversation with the boy’s mother and family. He prayed with the family. While walking back to his office, it struck Chaplain Charles deeply about how the Holy Spirit used a simple secular song to draw these people closer to God in a time they most needed it.

Chaplain Kibirige is known as the “music man” to patients.

Another striking example of the power of music happened this past July. A man he had never met before stopped Chaplain Charles during his rounds in the ICU.

“‘Are you Charles the music man,’ he asked me. ‘The nurse told us about you and how you play music for the patients. Would you be able to play a song for my wife?” Chaplain Charles recalled.

The man, Norm Kerr of Roseville, explained that his wife, Dianne, had suffered a stroke while at a family member’s high school graduation party in Waterford and was brought to St. Joe’s Oakland for treatment. Norm said Dianne loved the old country song from Charlie Pride, “There Goes My Everything” and asked Chaplain Charles if he could play it for his wife. Chaplain Charles agreed to look up the song and learn it.

“I went home that weekend, looked the song up, and put a little dose of my own creativity to the arrangement,” he said. “I went back the following Monday and played it for the patient. However, Norm was not present that day but his son made a recording of the presentation on his phone as I sang the song for Dianne. It was a day later that I got a call from Norm letting me know how beautiful it was and how meaningful it was to him and his wife and family.”

Chaplain Charles continued to see the family and play for them occasionally while they were in the hospital. Dianne’s condition improved from being unresponsive on their first encounter, to making nods and other nonverbal communications in the subsequent days and weeks. Eventually, Dianne was discharged and returned home to her family.

“I see in this whole experience, among other things, music’s ability to help inspire hope and healing in patients,”  he said.

Chaplain Charles and his guitar visit the ICU waiting room daily at 2 p.m. He also visits the Behavioral Medicine floor. 

Entering Into the Chaos of Another

By Michael Miller, Chief Mission Officer

“Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”

This is my favorite definition of mercy. 

I learned it from a moral theologian — James Keenan, S.J. — and I share it every chance get. I often share it during new employee orientation at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System. My job is to support my colleagues as we ensure that our mission, values and Catholic identity are tangible in the work we do each day. I get to remind my co-workers about the sacred opportunity we have to be mercy for others. 

Everyday, people walk into hospitals not knowing why they are sick, anxiously waiting for a diagnosis. Some of them are afraid that they don’t have enough money to pay for the care they need. This is living in chaos. 

While we know we can’t cure everyone, we can care for everyone. We can be companions in their time of need. We can enter into their chaos. We can be mercy for them.

Even if you don’t work in a hospital, you probably have opportunities to be mercy for others everyday. In his 2015 Message for Lent, Pope Francis shares his hope that we take advantage of these opportunities:

“…how greatly I desire that all those places where the Church is present … may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!”

Perhaps you’ve heard the Gospel story about Joseph learning that Mary was pregnant before they got married. This freaked him out. He was ready to divorce her and leave. However, God intervened and Joseph chose to stay with Mary. He willingly entered into the divine chaos of Mary’s life. Joseph was mercy for Mary. 

I would guess that you know people living in some kind of chaos. Whether they are in our parish, workplace, neighborhood or our own family, we can, like Joseph, be mercy for others.

Questions for Reflection:

How can I reject indifference today?

How can I be mercy for others?


Note:  On March 18, the Catholic Church and several Protestant and Orthodox traditions celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph.  St. Joseph is the namesake and patron of St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor, Livingston, Oakland, Port Huron and of our fellow Trinity Health ministries in Mishawaka, Ind., Atlanta, Ga., and Southern Pines, NC. 

Re-published with permission from the St. Mary Student Parish.

IMG_0149Michael Miller, Jr. is the Regional Chief Mission Officer at Saint Joseph Mercy Health System. He studied philosophy at Loyola University New Orleans (BA ’01), liturgy at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis (MA ’07) and is currently studying bioethics at Loyola University Chicago. He moved to Ann Arbor, MI in 2011 with his wife, daughter and dog, and is grateful for their willingness to enter into his chaos.