Faith Forum: ministry of presence

Faith Forum: Father Charles Bober answers parishioners’ questions

1. My grandmother was close to death and we needed a priest.  It was a Saturday afternoon, but why was it so difficult for one of them to get there in time?

2. My sister died, and after the funeral Mass, the priest was unable to go with us to the cemetery.  Why was that?

The questions above have two important contexts; essentially, the way it was in the Church, and the way it is today.  In the early part of the 20th century, many Catholics came from Europe and established parishes similar to those in the homeland they left.  In most places in Europe, parishes were established in the “village model.”  Every village had a church, with a priest who lived and worked there. 

Sacraments and rituals were celebrated around this model.  Funerals, for example, involved the priest leading the body from the family home to the church where the funeral Mass took place, then the priest leading the people from the church to the adjacent cemetery for the burial.  Immigrants brought that tradition with them to the United States.

This pattern existed late into the last century.  But it now has changed dramatically.  Priests are no longer abundant in number.  They are scattered over large areas  and are often responsible for multiple parishes or churches.   The questions above are often asked as if the village model still exists. 

In that context, then, let us address the question regarding the person near death, whose family is asking for the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.  That sacrament is best sought as a person begins the journey through illness.   However, as the person nears death, it is not always possible for a priest to be there especially on a Saturday afternoon when there are weddings, parish activities and evening Masses.

But while the presence of a priest and the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick are important, this is not the only experience of prayer that can take place at that moment.  There are various prayers for the commendation of the dying.  These prayers may be those that are most familiar to the person who is dying.  They ask that the Lord bring into eternal life the soul of a loved one.  Those prayers said in the familiar voice of a loved one can bring such peace to a dying person.

However, at times a sick person may ask someone to pray with them, only to hear Catholic family members say, “I’ll call a priest.”   For some reason, perhaps rooted in the village model of parishes and priests, we believe that a priest is he only one who can say prayers.

This is also true for the cemetery committal after the funeral Mass.  Often priests are asked to accompany the deceased and family for a long drive to say a short prayer.   In the village model, the family home, church and cemetery were all in walking distance, but it is not like that today.  The prudent use of time is the only way priests are able to accomplish the multiple tasks expected of them over ever-increasing distances between the parishes or churches for which they are responsible.

Photo by Dena Koenig Photography