We live in a four-unit tenement. The neighbors across the hall, John and Mary, are an elderly couple. Mary is not a Catholic, but John is. He has emphysema and is on oxygen; for over a year he has not been doing well and has hardly been able to venture outside. Mary is strong and capable, and she takes good care of him. My husband and I and the people downstairs have helped out when we can, especially with shopping and getting John to the doctor’s office.
The priest at our parish knows about John and has come to see him, but not often. He used to come more frequently, but has not been here now for almost two months. Yesterday, after I helped Mary with their shopping, she and John and I were talking about this. He would like to get to Mass on Sundays, but just cannot do it, and he wants to receive Communion more often. Mary is angry, because she feels the priest is neglecting John because she is not a Catholic and he never contributed much to the Church.
I do not know whether that is why the priest has not been coming. But I do think something should be done about this situation. What is the right thing to do?
The question is how to help a housebound neighbor obtain needed pastoral service. The questioner should talk with the pastor about the neighbor’s need, and also should do what she can to help meet it. If the pastor cannot or will not meet the neighbor’s needs, the questioner should ask other priests in the area to do so and, if necessary, inform the bishop of the situation.
You do well to take an interest in John. All of us should be concerned about one another’s unmet needs, and Christian love certainly requires special concern about our neighbors’ spiritual needs. As a Catholic, John should receive the sacraments regularly, and it is good that you are looking for some way to help him obtain pastoral service.
I think it unlikely that the things Mary mentioned would lead any priest to neglect a parishioner, and there may be a good reason in this case why the priest cannot provide better service. He too may be unwell, or perhaps he has other problems not obvious to you. Also, with the number of priests declining, some simply cannot meet all their parishioners’ needs.
The first thing to do is make an appointment to see the priest. When you see him, do not ask why he has not visited John for almost two months. Instead, begin by telling him gently and encouragingly about John’s need and desire for more frequent pastoral visits. In explaining the situation, you should mention Mary’s suspicions while being careful not to endorse them. You might introduce this element of the story by saying: “You probably should know, too, that John’s wife, Mary, who is not a Catholic, is upset about this and imagines that . . ..”
You may be able to help the priest meet John’s needs and, perhaps, those of one or more other housebound persons living in your neighborhood. A lay person can serve as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, and the Church has a ceremony, which you could carry out, for Communion outside Mass.46 So, unless you have some reason for not doing so, you should tell the priest you are willing to help in this way if he will obtain the necessary authorization and teach you how. If the priest accepts your offer, on Sundays and/or certain weekdays he will give you a consecrated host for John and, perhaps, one or more other housebound persons. I suggest that, before talking with the priest, you have in mind whether and to what extent you will be able to serve others, and how often you will be able to provide this service. Though visiting the sick for a longer time often would be desirable, carefully carrying out the ceremony and visiting briefly will require less than one-half hour per person. If, as appears to be the case, your parish has not organized this ministry to its housebound members, you also might consider offering to help organize it.
If your offer to serve John’s need is accepted and you begin to act as a eucharistic minister, prepare well and avoid hurrying through the shortest form of the rite. Instead, provide a richer service for a recipient who welcomes it, and, in any case, carry out the ceremony each time as devoutly as you can. Our Lord deserves no less, and your effort not only will help dispose those to whom you bring him to receive him well but will benefit you by nurturing your faith, hope, and love. If you have the opportunity, share your faith in the Eucharist with Mary by answering any questions she asks about the ceremony. If she is a Christian, you might invite her to participate by reading a passage from the Bible and joining in the Our Father—and, perhaps, also in an opening and/or closing hymn.
Even if you help in this way, however, John should see a priest from time to time to receive the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick (see Jas 5.14–15; CCC, 1499–1523). If possible, he also should participate in Mass at least occasionally. Since you and the people downstairs can help get him to the doctor’s office when necessary, perhaps you could get him to church now and then, if not on Sunday, then some other day, when the liturgy would not be too long. The priest could hear John’s confession, and at suitable intervals, anoint him before or after Mass. Perhaps, too, you could get a priest to stop by occasionally at John’s apartment on a weekday to hear his confession and say a Mass in which you and other neighbors could participate.
Even if John always has been derelict in his duty to support the Church, he ought to receive the Church’s service. That service is needed as a means of receiving God’s saving grace, to which none of us is entitled. So, even if those who shirk their duty are not entitled to the Church’s service, we are no more entitled to grace than they are. Like the rest of us, priests desire and receive unmerited grace. Mercy received demands that mercy be given. So, priests, like other Christians, owe others undeserved service when it is needed.47
Therefore, I expect the parish priest will appreciate your concern about John, accept your offer of help, and do what he can to meet John’s spiritual needs. But what if he is unresponsive or simply cannot provide adequate service? In that event, talk with priests in adjacent parishes or in nearby houses of religious orders, since any Catholic priest able and willing to visit John can provide pastoral care for him. If necessary, write to the bishop of the diocese and explain the problem. Also, if ever a Catholic priest in good standing were unavailable and John were in danger of death, he could be absolved by a Catholic priest who had left the priesthood—even if he did not obtain permission to do so (see CIC, c. 976)—and could receive not only absolution but anointing and Viaticum from a priest of an Orthodox church (see CIC, c. 844, §2).
One final point. Not now, but once John’s spiritual needs are being met, perhaps you should speak gently to him about the fact that, as Mary reports, he never contributed much to his Church. He may have had good reasons, either because this family always has been poor or because Mary, not being Catholic, resented such expenditures and put pressure on him to limit his contributions. But if he could have given more yet failed to do his fair share, he owes restitution to any parish and diocese in which he has lived (see LCL, 444–58). Of course, his obligation to make this restitution or any other he might owe would be limited by his present ability. Still, if restitution would be appropriate and he cannot pay, he should pray for those to whom he was unfair and offer his sufferings for them.
46. See The Rites, 459–83.
47. CIC, c. 843, §1: “The sacred ministers cannot refuse the sacraments to those who ask for them at appropriate times, are properly disposed and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”