May 14, 2010

The Priest Didn't Come

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.


Joe (Defend Us In Battle) said...

I think that your concerns mirror (are similar but the inverse of) the concerns that many of us faithful have. Some of us desperately need the council of clergy, but because of the complexity of Parish life nowadays, it is hard for us to "connect" with a priest.

For example, as a newer Catholic (2006) I have always desired some further formation, questions answered, even a partial friendship with a priest. In todays world, that is a big task... especially when many priests are responsible for 1-3 parishes, several masses, the administration of the parish (which is many times in debt), possibly the administration of a school or other facility.

Maybe I will do a blog post over at my blog on this :)

AF said...

I worked in an icu at a hospital for a period of time. The local parishes gave a monthly "on call" calendar to the hospital for them to use to obtain a priest in the event of an emergency. I doubt this is unique to this hospital. It may not be ideal to have a priest from another parish for times like this but it is a way for priests in an area to be proactive about maintaining "coverage" for emergencies.

Sara said...

Thank you for all your difficult and dedicated work, and for your concern over the people affected by these situations.

As a recent convert I feel like maybe I should keep my mouth shut about this, I don't want to minimize anyone's feelings of hurt or betrayal. But I have run into many lifelong Catholics who can't wait to tell me about the reasons they left their parish or the faith. Often they have simple "because the priest did/didn't..." type of reasons, but if you ask a little more, the personal, more complicated motivations for walking away come to the surface. So it is a scandalous thing... but I think it's more complicated too.

Qualis Rex said...

Stole her kidney during confession?? I HATE it when that happens!

Father, as you are a convert, let me tell you the "I left because Father "X" never came..." is as old as Catholicism. An annecdote: back in "the old country" my sainted grandmother did a lot of charitable work in her parish. She was a bit of a "groupie" and doted on the priests (there were about 12) as many women did back then (to military as well). For some reason, one priest after being there for 2 years not only did not know her name but would treat her as one would a maid, ordering her to bring him this or that (even using the familiar "tu"). One night my grandfather, her husband was shot and as my grandmother rushed to the hospital with him, she told my uncle, her son, to run to the rectory for a priest to meet them at the hospital. My uncle literally ran there and was turned away by, guess who. The reasons are still hazy, but this was in the early 70's and my uncle was quite a hippie, which most likely did not impress the priest.

Luckily, the hospital was lousy with priests, and there was someone to give my grandfather last rights. Just before his funeral, when it was learned who my grandmother was married to, the priest in question clamored to be the presiding priest at the funeral. And the story goes that just before the mass began, my grandmother learned he would be the presider and marched into the rectory and said, "you never knew my husband. And after two years you never knew me. And you will never be known as the priest who gave my husband his funeral mass." Whereupon another priest promptly began dressing for the mass and carried it out.

Long story, I know. But this was back in "the olden days" before you were Catholic and I was born. So, it's the same problem, different era. But honestly, I think you have cracked the code so as to be ready, but not spread too thin.

Lee Strong said...

My father recently died. He was visited (twice) by the good Sister from my parish (Dad's parish was far away), and she suggested I contact the hospital chaplain. I left word so Dad could get annointed the next day, which was several days before he actually died.

I'm grateful for the spiritual care he received.

Dad was 77 and a stroke patient. He had been in a nursing home in my county - not his - for several years, so his contact with his home parish was minimal. My parish stepped in. Besides Sister's visit, my parish priest stopped by to see Dad during a previous hospital visit. And at the home Dad was in for the past three years there was a deacon who visited on a weekly basis, and there were regular Masses or communion service. They were a comfort to Dad.

I do wonder what happens to older folks who might not have a relative around to advocate for them,, or are in a home where there is less Catholic involvement. One home Dad was in a few years back had weekly Protestant services, but not Catholic ones.

I also sympathize with parish staff. They may get lists - but with fewer priests - many parishes are one-preist ones. They get days off - they need them. What happens on those days if there's an emergency? I'm sure many a good priest has received complaints about not "being there" when it wasn't through neglect or not caring. I also wonder how many times a priest or the parish gets complaints from relatives who never contacted the parish in the first place to let them know about an ailing parishioner? And what of hosptials that don't have a regular Catholic chaplain on staff or available? The sidtuation in my diocese might get tougher as our cleicla numbers are dropping - and no ordinations scheduled for three years. There may not be enough priests to cover everything.

I know if I were a priest and I heard of someone who died without annointing, I'd feel terrible - even if it wasn't due to my neglect.

Anonymous said...

In the archdiocese of NY, parishes still have priests-on-duty, but some other places (such as Newark, and Washington, DC) have discontinued this. I remember a legendary priest of Newark telling me that when he was newly ordained he left the rectory to go pray in the church when he was "on duty" (meaning he had to be available to answer the door or phones in case of an emergency). He was reprimanded by his pastor.

Of course, technology today allows a priest more leeway in leaving the rectory itself when "on duty." However, I've had suprise visits on people who just "showed up" for a confession or needing help with a spiritual crisis. [I've also had the people who report that "the church has been stolen" or who "are hungry" but only want "money" and refuse every offer of food.

Of course, we do need down time to relax, as Jesus Himself did by fleeing to the mountains with the apostles. But a practical part of our priestly celibacy is supposed to serve to make us available to the people of God.

Brother Charles said...

We still have 24/7 duty where I work. Phone forwarding and a good phone system make it possible for us without being burdensome. It also means that when I answer my office extension, nobody knows where I really am!