A Healing Presence

Priests must find the courage, compassion to visit the sick

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Many years ago, when I was a young seminarian, I was assigned to the local Catholic hospital for my apostolic work. I was blessed to shadow the Catholic chaplain. I followed him from room to room visiting the sick. The experience for me became a classroom where there were many lessons on how to minister to the sick.

There was one room we entered where the patient was crying. The sight of those tears, coupled with the fact that the person was ill and I had little experience in this realm, made me unsettled. In my youth there was part of me that wanted to run from that room. I felt helpless and trapped.

After observing the initial exchange of pleasantries between the chaplain and the patient, I was struck by what the chaplain said next. He looked at the woman’s tears and asked, “Are those happy tears or sad tears?” I don’t remember how the woman responded. What I do remember upon hearing those words is feeling more at ease and less troubled. The chaplain courageously acknowledged the feelings of this sick person. And he did it ever so naturally with a real sense of gentleness.

While some of us visit the sick and take hospital calls, it can become very functionary. We say the prayers, hear the confession, celebrate the anointing, distribute holy Communion and offer a blessing. We are present but not fully engaged because we need — at least in our minds — to get to our next task.

Still, some of us struggle with visiting the sick perhaps because we are overburdened by the sickness of someone in our own family. What is more, we may associate the hospital we are visiting with the deaths of our parents or siblings. I remember having to visit the mother of a priest friend in the same hospital in which my mother had recently died. Needless to say, that was a difficult visit.

Some of us priests clearly are not equipped to be hospital chaplains. Nevertheless, we all need to know how to visit and pray with the sick. Thanks be to God there is a ritual for us to follow in the times we ourselves grapple for words. The Pastoral Care of the Sick ritual has a whole host of options for praying with the sick. It would be advantageous for all of us to read once again the apostolic constitution and general introduction associated with the rite along with the various introductions for each part of the ritual.

I also would suggest that, especially for those of us who may have difficulty visiting the sick for whatever reason, we continue to try to dig deeper into the issue, either through prayer, with our spiritual director or in conversation with a brother priest. Perhaps we need to honestly confront our anxiety or trepidation about visiting the sick. Maybe we need to humble ourselves and acknowledge that when we do visit the sick we need not have all the answers. Next to being healthy, there is nothing that a sick person wants more than to feel normal and not ostracized. How blessed we are as priests not only to be a presence to the sick but to bring them Jesus.

Feb. 11 is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes and World Day of Prayer for the Sick. Through the intercession of Our Lady of Lourdes, let us pray for all of our sick brothers and sisters and offer our sacrifices for them. At the same time, let us recommit ourselves to visiting the sick even when it is uncomfortable or inconvenient. They need us and the sacraments we offer. And we need them for the trusting witness they give.

FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR, editor of The Priest, is a pastor of 14 years in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where he has served in numerous roles. To share your thoughts on this column or any others, follow The Priest on Twitter @PriestMagazine and like us on Facebook.