Minister to the Ministers; Bernard Cotter
While the Catholic Church is second to none in the pastoral care it offers the sick, it is not
always so attentive to the health needs of the priests who are called on to serve others, but
in doing so may forget to care for themselves
One Saturday, a fictional priest who works on his own in a parish finds himself quite ill. The heavy cold that has weighed him down all week has turned to flu. His energy levels are low, yet he faces four weekend masses.
Out of a sense of dedication and commitment, he perseveres: he’s not sure what else he can do. Things don’t improve; by the last Mass, he can hardly stand. On Monday morning, he is found dead in his home. Cause of death: pneumonia.
Whose fault is his death? The priest’s own, perhaps: should he have minded himself better, got medical assistance in time, called in sick? Is it the fault of his diocese? Should better procedures have been in place, so that a priest would know what to do when ill, who to contact etc? Or is it the fault of parishioners, who did not insist that their obviously ill priest should retire to bed and leave them without Mass?
Or is it the fault of his Church, whose regulations left him without a partner to care for and support him, ‘in sickness and in health’?
There is no easy answer to the question, yet it must be asked. It is ironic that a church that is so committed to caring for the sick in general seems to put little in place to support its sick ministers in their local ministry locations.
Taking the Lord’s lead, hospital chaplaincy is never neglected, no matter what vocation shortages afflict a local Church. Religious congregations play their role in the care of the sick: for some, it is their principal ministry. The housebound are at the heart of parish life, receiving the sacraments regularly. On pilgrimages to places such as Lourdes, sick people are at the core of the enterprise, and are cherished and cared for. In general terms, the sick are at the heart of the Church’s universal ministry, as the Lord who cared for the sick would wish.
Yet, in actual ministry situations, sickness is often treated as a rare disturbance of the natural order, never to be expected or prepared for. I speak from experience. I suffer occasionally from cellulitis, an infection under the skin, which can only be cured by at least three days complete rest and a course of antibiotics. I never know when it will strike: the three days rest might have to begin on the day before a parish wedding or funeral, or any weekend, or even on the Wednesday of Holy Week (ruling out my presiding over the Easter Triduum). I am fortunate that occurrences are rare, but they have taught me that parishes need contingency plans, not in case I might get sick but for when I do.
Getting such plans agreed has proved a challenge. In one of the two churches in the parish where I minister, ministers of the Word and Eucharist willingly lead a service at which the Word is proclaimed and Holy Communion distributed — but on weekdays only. Finding a replacement for Sundays or holydays or for other occasions entails finding a priest, any priest, anywhere.
I do not know what will happen when a priest cannot be found. In the second of the two churches in the parish, people were not prepared to lead a service in the absence of the priest in any circumstance. The only announcement that they would agree to was the notice of when Masses were celebrated in nearby churches.
In five years time, fewer priests will be available to stand in at the last moment. But priests will get sick then as often as today, perhaps more often when more is demanded.
Perhaps this would be a good time for parish councils and assemblies to get into the habit of making such contingency plans. Perhaps each parish needs a health committee to keep the health of the parish and its ministers under review, for the benefit of all.
Parish health care is not the only solution to illness among the ministers of the Church. Priests need to mind themselves too, attending to their health, including rest and recreation in their daily lives. In their pre-ordination and ongoing formation, the care of their own bodies needs to be emphasised as a ministry priority, lest they forget the mystery of the incarnation: God taking human flesh making human flesh precious.
The local bishop and diocese has a role also. It should be clear to a priest, particularly a priest on his own in a parish, who he should contact in case of sudden illness. The procedure must be clear, and the person who will adjudge if he is fit to minister must be specified.
The individual minister and the wider Church have a definite role, but most of the caring for sick ministers will happen within the local community. A parish health committee thus could have much to do: the healthcare of a parish and its people and facilities has many aspects.
One of the first considerations might be a parish-appointed medic for each church, someone who might be on call at times of religious services. This person might attend masses and keep an eye out for people in need of attention, whether in the pews or at the altar. This person, possibly a parish nurse, might also take a pro-active role, encouraging personal health care in those minister, supervising rest and recreation, even checking that the priest takes time off regularly, for health and emotional wellbeing. A parish healthcare committee might also check that everything about the church building encourages health and hygiene, with clean toilet facilities available, hand washing encouraged and with special attention given to those that touch food, particularly the Bread of Life.
Sacristans, who prepare hosts before Mass and ministers who distribute them need to be importance of clean hands. A first aid kit in the sacristy would also be essential, another item for the health committee or professional to insist upon.
Parishes which care for those who minister to them are doing good work, but may also be making sure their minister is healthy enough to serve them for many a long year.
Bernard Cotter ministers in Uibh Laoire parish, residing in Inchigeela, Macroom, Co Cork, Ireland. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was first published in the Parish Practice Page of The Tablet of 29 January 2011. Reproduced here with permission of the Tablet. Website: www.thetablet.co.uk