This Is Our Priest

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She says Mass for us every Sunday.” I’m always a little taken  aback when a nursing home resident introduces me to a visitor in those words. The visitor is even more startled. It would probably disturb the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who signed the “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests.” A main message of this document is “don’t confuse priests and lay people.”
In no way do I want to become a “clericalized” layperson. I am a Catholic woman who has been doing pastoral ministry in the home for 28 years. Let me tell you a little about my ministry. Every Sunday morning I preside at a Liturgy of the Word and Communion Service using hosts that have been consecrated at a local parish Mass. On any given Sunday, approximately 50-60 residents and many of their family members participate. Although I usually attend Mass in a parish church the preceding evening, I consider this service with my little community to be my primary Sunday celebration.

Each week I try to plan a liturgy that encourages my special congregation to become involved. Residents often do the readings and lead the responsorial psalm. So that we can include their concerns when I write the petitions for the Prayer of the Faithful every Friday, I am assisted by a woman who has established a prayer line for her fellow residents. Sometimes there are residents who had been members of their parish choirs, and we select familiar hymns that they can lead us in singing.

We generally sing a capella, and our choir will never win any recording contracts. On special days, such as Christmas and Easter, a friend of mine provides keyboard accompaniment.

A couple of residents have helped me make an Advent wreath. A resident helps me distribute Communion at the service. To keep things legitimate, he was “commissioned” by the local pastor. Not wanting to lose my indult from the diocese, I follow the prescribed script for Sunday celebrations when a priest is not present. However, when we recite the Nicene Creed together, we say “for us he became human.” This is a more accurate translation of “propter nos homines homo factus est” if the liturgical police want to complain.

My reflection it can’t be called a homily is usually brief because many of my listeners have short attention spans. I actually give most of it before each reading, calling attention to what they should listen for. After the Gospel I give brief remarks and then pick up on the theme in the intercessions.

The sign of peace would probably give many liturgists conniptions as I circulate throughout the room, exchanging with each person a double handed clasp or hug. I make sure that I can greet everyone by name. I will use their names again at Communion time. This is extremely important for people who can easily become institutionalized. During the service about six other ministers of Communion are making the rounds of the building visiting and bringing Communion to the 70 or 80 Catholic residents unable to participate in the service. They have been trained by me, and I have prepared a list for each with a view to making compatible matches. The goal is for each resident to have the same person visit every Sunday. This continuity is very important for those who have  Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia as well as for residents who have no other visitors.

I spend all day Sunday at the home, bringing Communion to those who were not reached earlier or who have created special problems for the ministers earlier in the day. I also visit with residents who are not Catholic and even sing a couple of Jewish hymns with an elderly man who rarely has company. Sometimes, if time is available, I lead a small reminiscence group which is  always popular. I coach the activists among them on how to fight for residents’ rights, and fit it into my reflection when they have fought for something that affects less able residents.

Because many residents do not speak English, I have learned to say the “Our Father” in several languages. However, a carefully made sign of the cross is often all that is needed for a resident to understand the purpose of a visit. One Cape Verdean woman with dementia always has a conversation with me in Portuguese. I respond in English. We go on like this for several minutes, each speaking in a language that the other does not understand. She laughs, and I smile back. When I make the sign of the cross and ask her to say “Pai Nosso comigo”, she becomes very reverent and bows her head in prayer. She holds my hand and kisses the host before she receives it. A nurse had told me this woman was not capable of receiving communion.

Staff members call me to pray with those who are dying, and I have occasionally spent the entire night with a dying person. I often administer Viaticum, but a priest whom they don’t know has to be called to do the anointing. Most frustrating are the times  hen people have poured out their hearts about things in their past for which they feel very guilty. I can tell them that God loves them and has forgiven them, but I can’t make it “official.” Some of these old timers believe they must have absolution to “be saved,” yet they won’t let me call a priest because of some long held grudge.

I do not feel called to the ministerial priesthood as it is now structured, but I often wish I had sacramental faculties for my work with nursing home residents. It seems inappropriate that I have to omit the Eucharistic prayer every Sunday, that  I can’t grant absolution, that I can’t administer the Sacrament of the Sick.  We are truly a Eucharistic community. I need the residents’ ministry to me as much as they need my ministry. I can always count on them for wise advice. They have been very supportive  at difficult times in my life. There are many rewarding ministries for lay people, but I feel very fortunate to have been able to answer the call to nursing home ministry. This is where I find God.

Let me tell one final anecdote. Not long ago a priest, here in the U.S. just two years from Poland, was a resident for several weeks for rehabilitation after having suffered a stroke. Every Sunday morning he wheeled his chair to the back  of the room for the service. On his first Sunday, I detected some distress. That afternoon I went to his room and asked what he thought of our service. Even with his heavily accented stroke-impaired speech it was very clear that he was appalled that a woman read the  gospel. He calmed down a little when I explained that  I had an indult from the bishop. I gave him a picture of the Polish Pope John Paul II, and promised to be a regular visitor. A few weeks later, I showed some of his parishioners to his room. “I want you to meet my priest” he told them with a twinkle in his eye.

[the author is a retired teacher.]

OMG! A Journal of Religion and Culture 1 January 2015