Esteemed colleague Paul brings up a hard issue in his comment on the previous post. He is not alone in being scandalized by the failure of some priests to attend to the sick and the dying.
I've been thinking about it, and it's a hard question. On the one hand, I think almost any priest is ready to drop whatever he is doing to go minister to the dying with Anointing and/or Viaticum, etc. This is one of the classic works of the cura animarum; it is part of the identity of the priest. On the other hand, it isn't infrequent to hear of someone leaving their parish or even falling away from the faith because 'the priest didn't/wouldn't come' when a loved one was sick or dying.
So what's going on here?
First, I have always found the clergy hard to reach. Rectory office hours are shrinking, and it can be hard to get through the maze of phone menus during other hours. What's more, during the times when offices are closed, i.e. in the evening or early morning, the parish priest is often unavailable because of services and meetings. Most rectories at least have an answering machine, but my experience of the clergy is that they do not take advantage of all the technological means available to them for keeping track of emergencies.
Second, and this is hard to say, but as a parish priest you just can't answer your phone at night. When I was first in the parish, I used to forward the emergency line straight to my cell phone on the nights when I was on duty. I imagined myself as an eager parish priest ready to respond to a pastoral need at any moment. After an hour on the phone one night with someone complaining that one of the priests stole her kidney when she came to confession, and another half hour another night with someone afraid to come out of his basement because of "the aliens," I set up a voice mail account where people could leave a message. It invites people with real emergencies to leave a message, after which I will call them back. Some folks find this off-putting, but I require my sanity. I check the messages frequently, and this system seems to work pretty well. On the other hand, I realize that people who are distressed or elderly may not understand such things when they call.
Third, I think that perhaps in years past people considered calling the priest something like calling the police or the fire department; one wouldn't do it unless there were a genuine emergency. Let me assure you that nowadays people call you just because they are bored or lonely, or, most likely, have exhausted the willingness of anyone else to listen to them. Not that this kind of listening isn't an important work of charity that no parish priest should despise, but without an abundance of priests, one has to make decisions about time. Many times I have left my office phone on speaker while doing other work, the person on the line not even noticing that she had been talking for twenty minutes without my speaking a word. All of this is not a complaint, but just my reflection on my experience as I try to guess at why the clergy sometimes make themselves hard to reach.
Fourth, in an aging parish, a priest often doesn't know the most elderly parishioners. Mr. so-and-so may have been an intrepid and devoted usher for fifty years, or Mrs. so-and-so may have ironed the purificators since she was a teenager, but because their children have either moved away and/or fallen away from the practice of the faith, the priest may not even know of this great parish family. In many parishes it is precisely this middle generation that is missing from the pews, and it make it hard to keep track of the older folks. For this reason, it is good to cultivate the acquaintance of a couple of families with long histories in the parish, and a good memory of people from the past. This also brings up another ugly issue. Every Catholic, no matter how lax or unobservant, wants a few things: a baptism for their baby, their ashes on Ash Wednesday, and a priest at their deathbed. If, in between these things, they do not feel any similar need to support their parish, assist at Sunday Mass, contract marriage according to canonical form, or give their dead a proper burial, then J. Random Pastor, who can't pay the light bill, prays that it won't be him but his successor who has to close the parish school, and presides over a physical plant that is falling apart, might not feel any great urgency when he gets a sudden emergency call from someone he doesn't even know.
Fifth, in a place where there are a lot of parishes, people in an emergency will often call around until they can get a priest on the phone. This is why there was a priest already there when I went to the nursing home the other night. After leaving a message on my emergency line, the folks at the nursing home called another church. When I didn't get an answer when I called back I just went. Sometimes the priest who ends up being the one who answers the phone is not the one who is actually responsible for the individual or institution looking for help. Some priests won't care about this, but others who are already overworked will become annoyed at their brother priest who is actually responsible for the pastoral care but couldn't be reached. One can't fault the people for this; they are in distress and just want someone to come, but I think this is also part of why priests can sometimes, consciously or not, make themselves hard to reach.
Again, I think any priest is ready to leave the house at any time to attend to the dying. But sometimes it just doesn't happen, and people can be very disappointed, even to the point of spiritual injury. I offer these reflections not as a rant or indulgence of negativity, but just as my thoughts on why these secret tragedies of lost pastoral opportunity sometimes happen.