Q. I read your column every week in our archdiocesan paper, and I have a question for you. What is the role of the parish priest at the time of the serious illness and death of a parish member?
I recently lost my husband after a long illness, the last several months of which he was not able to attend Mass. The priest never inquired about him, called him or came to visit. And he never got in touch with me after my husband’s death.
A parishioner had told the priest that my husband’s condition was getting worse and that perhaps he should call. According to her, the priest told her that it was not his place to reach out to us, but our place to reach out to him. (Louisville, Kentucky)
A. A parish priest’s duty is to care for the sick. Nothing could be clearer than that. The church’s Code of Canon Law says this:
“In order to fulfill his office diligently, a pastor is to strive to know the faithful entrusted to his care. Therefore he is to visit families, sharing especially in the cares, anxieties and griefs of the faithful, strengthening them in the Lord. … With generous love, he is to help the sick, particularly those close to death, by refreshing them solicitously with the sacraments and commending their souls to God” (Canon 529.1).
So if the priest you speak of actually said that it was not his place to reach out to a parishioner who was seriously ill, I respectfully — but strongly — disagree. He may have been concerned about not wanting to “frighten” the person by showing up unannounced, but that issue is resolved simply — by calling the family ahead of time to ask if the individual might welcome a visit. If yours is a large parish, I am not surprised that the priest did not notice your husband’s absence immediately — but, as you said, he was alerted to the situation.
I do know, from my own experience, that with the shortage of priests (in most U.S. parishes right now a single priest can serve hundreds, even thousands, of parishioners), it is difficult for a priest to get around to see everyone he wants to — but a seriously ill parishioner would automatically jump to the top of my “must do” list. So I am truly sorry for what happened in your case, and I apologize on the church’s behalf.
As for a follow-up visit or call after your husband’s death, that is an excellent practice. With some parishes doing upward of 100 funerals a year, a single priest cannot always do this, but in a number of parishes there is a “bereavement team” that visits a grieving family and can alert the priest to particular situations that need his attention.
Q. I am having a difficult time with the pastor we have here in our parish. He is not a native American, has a strong accent and is very difficult to understand. I feel it is unfair that, because of this, our deacon has to preach so often, and I fear that we may be losing some of our youth as a result. I continue to attend Mass every weekend and am just hoping that something can be resolved. (Virginia)
A. Certainly parishioners have a right to, and expect to, hear often from their pastor. So I agree that it is not appropriate for him to be replaced most of the time by a deacon as the homilist.
What if, instead, your pastor wrote the homily for most Sundays and had it read by the deacon? (That way the congregation would understand it more readily, but it would be explained to them that the message itself came from the pastor.) Also, have you thought about communicating your concern to your parish council — or even to the pastor directly?
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.
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