I was flipping through the National Catholic Reporter recently and paused when I came to the letters to the editor (July 18–31). While NCR is a good source of reporting on Catholic affairs, its editorial slant very much leans left, and the readership often reflects that perspective. Sometimes the letters can be quite entertaining, and this time was no exception—at first glance, anyway.
A reader wrote in response to a previous issue's article on "the excommunication of leaders of We Are Church in Austria (NCR, June 6–19)," the excommunication levied because the group attempted to celebrate Mass without a priest. The reader sympathized with the problems experienced by those "who treasure the Mass but are deprived of attendance for an extended period" and explained how he and his wife celebrate "a memorial, not Mass" that "is a good reminder of who we are." He stated:
My wife and I are 92 and 90 years of age. For years, we attended daily Mass. Now in a retirement home and without a car, that is no longer possible. But we want to keep a sense of frequent Mass alive.
We have a ceramic marriage cup that is a suitable chalice. We always have wine in our apartment. No bread, but Ritz crackers. A battery-operated candle. A small towel topped with a Kleenex is a suitable altar cloth. The desk is almost altar-like.
We have a booklet with the ordinary prayers of the Mass and we choose our own Scripture readings.
We know it isn't a Mass, but it is a memorial. As we break the Ritz-host we say, "We are the body of Christ." In drinking from the wedding cup, we say, "And we remember the blood of Christ."
Not a word from the editor in comment on this quasi-liturgical "service" that mimics a Mass, which was offered by the presumably Catholic reader with the intent of encouraging other Catholics to go and do likewise. And where is this spiritual wasteland where this couple evidently is entirely unable to go to Mass, and even prevented from channel-surfing to find a televised Mass? The reader writes to NCR from Seattle, Washington.
It would be easy to snicker over the details of this account, which sounds for all the world like the kind of pretend liturgy that small children would create for an afternoon's play. Ritz crackers? A battery-operated candle? Kleenex on a towel on a desk? Yes, indeed, I could enjoy a chortle or two, but for one small detail:
My wife and I are 92 and 90 years of age. For years, we attended daily Mass. Now in a retirement home and without a car, that is no longer possible.
When I picture two nonagenarians carefully arranging a "memorial liturgy" and munching on Ritz crackers because they no longer have transportation to Mass, the scene I see is just too heartbreaking for laughter. A quick eye-roll perhaps over how this sad little rite is said to remind these two of "who we are" (as distinguished from remembering who God is), but no more. Because then it is time to get angry for them.
Why are these two elderly Catholics entirely cut off from the sacraments? When they stopped attending daily Mass, did no one notice? Or care? Did the parish where they attended daily Mass "for years" follow up to find out what had become of this couple before crossing their names off the list of families to receive envelopes? Did the bulletins they presumably received for years ever mention how homebound parishioners or their caregivers could arrange to receive the sacraments?
Evidently not. And so two 90-something Catholics are left to nibble on make-believe hosts by the light of a battery-operated candle.
Homebound on a Sunday morning
I often hear from Catholics wondering what to do when they are unable to go to Mass anymore. They want to know if they are sinning by missing Mass on Sundays. Or I will hear from adult children wanting to know if their parents are sinning. I never hear from parishes wanting to know what they can do to help homebound Catholics receive the sacraments.
Not only that, but I also hear from Catholics trying to arrange pastoral care to the homebound who are pushed away. Let me tell you one such story.
A few years ago, a friend was regularly visiting a gentleman who was even older than the couple in the retirement home. His end was near; although he wasn't Catholic, he wanted to see a priest. The problem was that he had dementia and his times of lucidity could not be anticipated.
My friend called several parishes in our area, searching for a priest willing to come out and talk to her friend. She even begged one priest in person. Not one was willing to visit the gentleman because the patient's lucidity could not be guaranteed. Finally, a mutual friend recommended our diocese's FSSP parish. Sure enough, one of the priests there immediately agreed to visit, and ultimately spent hours at a time over several days visiting my friend's friend—and visiting other patients in the facility too when the patient he was there to see was not lucid enough to talk.
What appalled my friend (and what appalled me upon hearing the story) was how difficult it was to get a priest to make time to visit a dying man who indicated that he wanted to see a priest. Sure, we both know that priests are incredibly busy—but I doubt they were any more busy than the priest who finally agreed and who found ways to make good use of the time he had to wait to talk with the patient.
Non-Christians at the wheel
Not long after that experience, I heard of a transportation program of the local Jewish Family Services. This program, called On the Go, ferries seniors aged 60 and over to appointments around the city. Not only will the service take seniors to doctor appointments and for errands, but they will take seniors to religious services and even (I learned when I looked into the program) down to the docks to catch a cruise ship. And they offer this service not just to Jewish families but to all San Diego seniors, regardless of religious affiliation. Which means that Catholic seniors in San Diego can get rides to Mass from a non-Christian charitable organization—if they happen to know of its availability.
Why is it, I had to ask myself, that there is no equivalent Catholic group that I know of that is stepping up to the plate to get Catholic seniors in their local communities to Mass?
To catch a good thief
Frankly, the lack of ordinary care among Catholics for those unable to attend Mass and receive the other sacraments on their own is appalling. And it is nothing new. Allow me to share one more story.
In his memoir, Treasure in Clay, Bishop Fulton Sheen tells of a parish he visited in a poor neighborhood that had received a gift of $10,000 to build a shrine dedicated to the Blessed Mother. When Sheen questioned the size of the gift and the ability of anyone in the parish to afford such a donation, the pastor said the money came from the sister of an elderly former bank robber (now released from prison and living with his sister), probably as conscience money given as a way of making up for her brother's notorious life. Sheen asked if the pastor had ever tried to talk to the robber about making his peace with God. The pastor said no.
So Sheen went to visit the elderly bank robber himself. The man was uninterested in Sheen's efforts. It had been seventy years since the man's last confession and he thought it would be cowardly to ask God to forgive him at the very end of his life. Sheen recounts what happened next:
"Well," I said, "let us see how brave you are tomorrow morning. I will come here to your door at eight o'clock. I will not be alone; I will bring the good Lord with me in the Blessed Sacrament. I am sure that you will not turn us both away."
When I returned in the morning, he opened the door. I heard his confession and gave him Communion—which proved to be viaticum because he died the next day. He was not the first thief the Lord saved on his last day (p. 204, e-book edition).
What can be done
Yes, priests are very busy, and not every one of them will have Bishop Fulton Sheen's drive to search out lost sheep to bring them home. (They should at least desire that drive, but it is a gift, and even as a gift it requires developing a knack.) But there are some things I think all priests can do, both to reach out to those in need and to encourage their parishioners to help in the effort.
- Use the media. The parish bulletin, newsletter, website, and/or Facebook page should all have a standard notice of how the homebound within the parish boundaries can approach the parish for the sacraments. Information on how to receive Communion to the homebound, and how to arrange for clergy visits for confession and anointing of the sick for the homebound, should be standard on every media platform a parish maintains. It is not enough to say that confession is available "by appointment" or to offer an "emergency phone number." People need the procedure spelled out and repeated often.
- Make welfare checks. If a family is about to be crossed off the parish's list of registered families because they haven't used their envelopes in a while, someone at the parish should be assigned to call and ask how the family is doing. I once fielded a question from a person who was appalled that her elderly parents, founding members of their parish, had been told that they were no longer "eligible" to have funeral services at that parish when the time came because they hadn't used their envelopes in years and thus were thought to no longer be parishioners. Turns out they were homebound and in straitened circumstances, no longer able to donate to the parish.
- Create ride-share programs. If a Jewish charitable organization can create a transportation program and, as part of the program, take Catholics to Mass, there is no reason why Catholics should not be finding ways to reach out to fellow Catholics in their area to offer rides to Mass. Period. And priests are the ones who should be encouraging their parishioners to organize such an effort.
- Go the extra mile. A Catholic should not have to call three parishes begging priests to visit the dying, desperately searching for one who will agree. Parishes should have a plan in place to handle such requests before they arise. If an extraordinary minister or a deacon can be dispatched to assess the situation first, that's fine. But if a priest is needed, then the parish should figure out a plan of action to arrange coverage for its priests when the priests must go out on unexpected sick calls. Having a plan in place now means that a priest may have the ability to say at some point, "Yes, of course, let me grab my stole, oils, and a consecrated host, and I'll be right over."
The bottom line is that every Catholic should be confident that nothing more than a brief phone call is necessary to arrange for needed pastoral care, either for himself or for his loved ones. No one should be left alone with a Ritz cracker and a battery-operated candle to suffice as a "memorial" of the sacraments.
Note: A version of this essay originally appeared on the blog, Peace, Joy, Pancakes (7/21/14). It is republished here with permission.