Dear Father Joe: My Father was sick and recently died. I was touched by how the people in his parish came by during his illness and now I want to do that at my own parish. How do I get involved?
God bless you for your question! Beyond answering it directly, I want to point out that, in this situation, you are allowing God to do something beautiful: heal your pain by helping others. Let’s dive right in!
There are many ways you can help your priest or your parish care for the sick. First and foremost is prayer: prayer for those in your parish who are sick. As a side note, I always crack up when, at Mass on Sunday, I hear us pray “for the sick of the parish.” I start to wonder what made them sick of our parish.
But to get us back on track, it’s important for us to remember that being a member of a parish family means that every day we take time to pray for those who are sick and ask God to restore them. This binds us to their fate and allows the power of the Holy Spirit to unite us in God’s heart and mind. Praying this way can also help us to expand our horizons and see and experience a world that is bigger than our pain or circumstances. If you can, pull a name or two off the list of those in the parish who are sick and pray for them whenever you do your meal blessing.
Beyond prayer, I’d check with your parish and see what they need. There are, as far as I can think of, three ways your parish may minister to the sick.
The first one is home or hospital visits. Some folks are in hospitals and others are home and not able to go out because of their health. Often, these folks could use a friend, and God may very well be calling you to be that friend. Bring over cards or checkers or a book. Bring pictures of your family and ask to hear about theirs. Ask them about their conditions and see if they have needs you can meet.
During that visit, there are also things you can do to help the sick or homebound feel connected to the life of their parish family. Bring them a bulletin, tell them about what is going on in the parish (avoid gossip!), buy them a raffle ticket for the parish event that is coming up – anything like that is a gift and lets them know that the people of the parish have not forgotten them.
There is another way you can help minister to the sick: bring them Communion. At many parishes, the first Friday of the month is when we ensure that the hospitalized and homebound have the opportunity to receive Communion. This is quite a task, and the more people who do it, the better it is. See if your parish needs volunteers to take Communion to the homebound or those in the hospital. Ask to be trained and get on that list! You can and will find a special joy in bringing the presence of Christ through the gift of the Eucharist into the lives of those who are ill.
I know for many, the sticking point is time. In our culture, it seems to me that time is one of the most expensive things for us. In between work and social obligations, school functions and sports, we are all pulled in so many directions. I invite you to think of time the way you think of money: something that has a great deal of value and that you are called to sacrifice. Don’t give of your time only when it is easy: give of your time all the time. Our time on earth belongs to God and sacrificing that time in order to serve his people is a statement about what is important in life and what our priorities are.
If your parish doesn’t have these ministries, you can offer to create them. I don’t think I can adequately explain what a blessing that would be to most priests. A lot of priests (this one included!) have a list of responsibilities and worries that are a mile long. I think of something Bishop Carl told me the day I was ordained. He said, “Every day, write down the seven things that absolutely have to get done and know that you probably will have to cross off four of them.” I’ve found that to be true: I’m a big guy, but I haven’t figured out how to be everywhere people need or want me to be. Often, the great comfort I have in those moments is knowing that God’s people are out there taking care of those people I can’t.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus talks about our judgement day. He describes God dividing everyone into two groups. To one of the groups he says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father: inherit the Kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world.” Why does he offer that group the promise of heaven?
“[Because] I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you took me in; I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick and you visited me; I was in prison and you came to me.”
The People he offers Heaven to are surprised. They ask him:
“Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or naked and clothe you? Or when did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?”
The answer is a great challenge and blessing:
“Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to me.”
Enjoy another day in God’s Presence!