By Rick Nash
For the past five years, Presence Saint Benedict Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Niles, IL, has organized a training program for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to the sick and homebound, also known as Catholic minsters of care. These trained volunteers bring Holy Communion to parishioners who are homebound, living in nursing homes, or in the hospital. They share with them the word of God in scripture, pray with them for the Church and the world, and offer them companionship. Through the Ministry of Care, local parishes keep long-time parishioners connected and active in their local faith communities.
The Archdiocese of Chicago requires each new minister of care to complete a 10-hour training program on pastoral listening skills, the experience and theology of suffering, the theology of the Holy Eucharist and sacraments, spirituality and prayer, and practical ministerial procedures. To make the training program more widely available, I decided to develop a formation program for local parishes in the north/northwest Chicago and suburban area, with the help of the retired priests at Presence Saint Benedict.
The priests involved in the training bring with them a lifetime of wisdom, compassion and love of ministry. Some are in wheelchairs, and some are dealing with memory issues and moderate dementia. Nonetheless, they are wonderful with the folks from local parishes who come for training. They concelebrate Mass in our chapel each morning for the community, and a few of them are able to provide anointing and reconciliation to our residents who are not able to come to the chapel.
The five-week formation program at Presence Saint Benedict was initially offered in 2015. Due to increasing demand, it is now offered three times each year — winter, spring and fall. During 2018, we trained more than 100 persons from 30 Catholic parishes as new ministers of care, and more than 500 have completed the training in the past four years. Each one will become an active minister, visiting the sick, homebound, and elderly in their local parish. Additionally, many will be assigned to work in local hospitals and nursing facilities. With the help of these new ministers of care during the next year, thousands of Catholics who are elderly or ill will be able to receive Holy Communion and the companionship of a caring member of their parish. As well as the central sacramental ministry of prayer and Holy Communion, this ministry always involves being present to help out in some way, even if only to give the gift of listening and companionship.
This program has become an important ministry for our retired priests, and local parishes have responded with overwhelming praise. Vatican II and the Catholic Catechism tell us that the Holy Eucharist is the source and summit of our Christian life. There is nothing more important for the Catholic faithful than being able to frequently receive the Holy Eucharist, especially for the elderly, sick and homebound. For the retired priests, this program has given them a renewed sense of mission and purpose. Since the program has begun, five retired priests have enthusiastically participated in the training sessions. Each weekly session includes a presentation by one or more of the priests, as well as time for open discussion.
To quote from Pastoral Care of the Sick, “Priests with pastoral responsibilities should see to it that the sick and aged, even though seriously ill or in danger of death, are given every opportunity to receive the Eucharist frequently, even daily. … In bringing communion to them the minister of Communion represents Christ and manifests faith and charity of behalf of the whole community toward those who cannot be present at the Eucharist. For the sick, the reception of Communion is not only a privilege but also a sign of support and concern shown by the Christian community for its members who are ill.”
Retired priests should be recognized as a tremendous blessing and resource for continuing to build up the Church. Catholic chaplains are encouraged to take leadership in developing programs to train and provide ongoing formation for lay parish ministers. As chaplains, we are called to extend our ministry of presence, prayer and sacramental blessing by helping to develop these types of local parish formation programs. Now more than ever, the Holy Spirit is calling Catholic chaplains to this important work.
Rick Nash, BCC, is director of mission and spiritual care at Presence Saint Benedict Nursing and Rehabilitation in Niles, IL.