One of the lessons I learned early in my priesthood was the importance of visiting the sick and homebound of the parish. Twenty-one of my 27 years as a priest have been in parish or campus ministry, and I can't begin to estimate how many people I have visited in those years.
I remember a very snowy Christmas Eve afternoon when, in the midst of the busyness of preparing for Christmas masses, I drove to one of the nursing homes in South Bend to visit an elderly parishioner. On the way out, I met her daughter, who was surprised to see me out in that weather – and even more surprised that I had made the trip just to visit her mom. She was so grateful and reminded me of that act of kindness in a card at my farewell.
In my parish in Brooklyn, we often hopped on the subway to travel into Manhattan to visit parishioners hospitalized there. They were so appreciative that we would take the time to travel all that distance to see them. In the midst of the busyness of that parish, I was not always thrilled with the prospect of spending all that time traveling, but once there I knew that the time was well spent in reaching out to a parishioner in his or her time of illness. Visits to the homebound and those in nursing homes were also a priority in our pastoral outreach and were always appreciated by them and their families.
Here in Easton, Massachusetts, there are a number of homebound parishioners whom I try to visit at least a few times a year. Each of them has a communion minister who brings them Sunday Eucharist. Our parish nurses and health ministry personnel will visit them if made aware of any medical needs with which they can assist.
My first priority is to visit parishioners who are hospitalized, and I will visit them fairly frequently as long as they are there. It is also important to visit those who are temporarily in rehabilitation centers after surgery or a major illness. With these visits as my top priorities, I then visit the homebound and those in nursing homes as often as I'm able.
Another area of important pastoral outreach is visiting those who have lost a loved one. While time may not allow me to do follow up visits with every family that has a funeral here at Holy Cross, I visit those most in need of pastoral outreach after a loved one's death, especially an elderly parishioner who may not have family in the area or someone who has experienced a particularly tragic death.
I do meet with each family before the Mass of Christian Burial in order to plan the Mass with them. It is also an opportunity to help the family work through some of their grief as I ask them questions about their loved one, which I work into my homily.
Visiting the sick is one of the seven corporal works of mercy. It is also one of the most fulfilling aspects of the ministry of a parish priest, and one of the most appreciated by his parishioners. It is but one of the many, diverse ministries that make parish work so fulfilling for a priest.
Fr. Jim Fenstermaker, C.S.C., is Pastor of Holy Cross Parish in South Easton, Mass. He is a monthly contributor to the Spes Unica Blog, reflecting on the work of Holy Cross in parish ministry. Learn more about the work of Holy Cross priests and brothers in parochial ministry as we seek to bring hope to the Church and world.