Restoring Greater Reverence to Sick Calls

In my Parish I work with the men of the Holy Name Society and also the women of the Sodality to ensure that the numerous sick in our parish are visited regularly. I try to visit the sick at least quarterly on a rolling basis to ensure they have had confession and anointing of the Sick. But, since I am without an assistant priest, as a general rule, I depend on them to bring communion regularly.

We met as a group this past week and had an interesting discussion about a concern that a number of them expressed, that of reverence. When they arrive at the home to which they visit it is not infrequent that a television is blaring, and the person to whom they bring communion is often unprepared by others in the home to receive Holy Communion. It is frequent that the extraordinary minister must ask that the television be turned down and that others might prayerfully participate. I too, upon visiting many of the sick encounter similar issues: loud TVs, other family members who do not understand the sacredness of the moment and a generally difficult setting in which to pray or reflect.

I do not blame either the sick or the family members for this situation. I blame myself and fellow clergy, many of whom, (though not all), have failed to teach or to explain to parishioners and family members (some of whom are not Catholic) as to proper protocol in this matter.

I explained to the extraordinary ministers assembled last week that we must re-catechize and teach on this matter. It will take time but, little by little, perhaps we can make progress toward restoring a greater reverence to sick calls. It is a general fact that sick calls have become very informal over the years. When the liturgy underwent sweeping changes in the 1970s many things were dropped (though we were not directed to drop them) that we are now rediscovering to be of importance.

In the “old days” the visit of the priest to bring communion and/or anointing to the sick was a matter of some formality. Most homes had a sick-call kit on hand that included things like a cross, candles, a cloth, cotton, and a bowl of water. If the priest were on First Friday rounds he might even be escorted by a server with a lit candle. At other times, a family member might greet the priest at the door with a candle and escort the priest to the room where the sick person was. In that room the “altar” was usually set up somewhat like the photo above. Family members usually stood by quietly while the priest administered the sacraments. If the priest did talk with the sick person or the family it was usually very brief. Since he had the Blessed Sacrament, casual talking was kept to a minimum. As he left, if he still had the Blessed Sacrament he was escorted by a family member with a candle. (Photo at left was taken in 1942 – Double-Click and get a better view).

Now what is described in the paragraph above did vary based on location and circumstances. First Friday Holy Communions were more formal. Emergencies might exclude some of the formalities. There were also ethnic differences. Other factors such as the catholicity of other family members and how devout each family was were also factors. But what was described above was the practice in usual circumstances, give or take a few details.

In recent times, as already noted, most of these details have fallen away. Like so many things in our culture we have become very casual, very informal. But it may be beneficial for us to rediscover some of the older practices in order to restore greater reverence to sick calls. I would like to suggest a few matters of protocol for your reflection. I will begin with a few disclaimers and offer some suggestions to which you are invited to add or critique.


  1. Not everything in the list that follows is possible or even advisable in every situation. Sometimes sick calls are hastily arranged due to emergencies and preparing a sick call altar might mean time away from a distressed or dying relative. Sometimes in nursing homes all the implements are not available or even allowed. For example many nursing homes would not allow the burning of candles. Hence, prudential judgment will weigh in on what is necessary, possible and advisable.
  2. Family situations may also affect the preparation of the sick call altar and other protocol. There may be no one in the home healthy enough to assemble the implements. There may be family members who are non-Catholic and choose not to participate in the rites and preparations.
  3. Not all the implements shown above are necessary for every sick call. Sometimes there will not be anointing and, hence a good amount of the things shown above are not necessary. Even if there is an anointing, it may not be necessary to do everything shown above. Here too, factors vary.
  4. What follows are recommendations only. Not absolute requirements. The hope is to instill some thoughtfulness as to the reverence due the moment of a sick call. Reverence is not pure science. Externals can and do help but ultimately it is our internal disposition that is most important.
  5. Regarding these recommendations, take what you like and leave the rest. Add to them and distinguish as you wish. Discussion with your parish priest is also helpful.


    1. Consider preparing the place where the Sacraments will be celebrated. If possible and necessary, tidy up a bit.
    2. Consider preparing a sick call table (or altar). Most commonly such a table included at least a candle. Preferably, there is a cross and two candles. A small glass of water is helpful since the sick person sometimes has trouble swallowing the host and a little water can help. A spoon is helpful if the person has a hard time sitting up to drink the water. A napkin of some sort can help if the person spills any water when drinking or gets their face wet. If the priest is going to anoint the sick person it may be helpful to have some cotton balls for him to wipe his fingers. If he does use them they are later to be burned. The picture above also shows bread and lemons to help the priest purify his fingers after anointing but these are rarely necessary and should not be supplied unless the priest asks for them ahead of time.
    3. Sick call kits containing many of these implements are available through Catholic catalogues. For example, HERE & HERE
    4. If possible and advisable, have the sick person awake and aware that the sacraments are about to be celebrated just prior to the arrival of the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister.
    5. Be sure that when the priest, deacon or extraordinary Minister arrives, the television, radio etc. are off and that other unnecessary conversations and activities in the house are ended.
  • In the past it was customary for someone to meet the priest at the door with a candle. This was done out of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. This can still be done today and is a wonderful way to teach others of the sacredness of the moment.
  1. It is preferable to have all the members of the household prayerfully aware of what is taking place. If the room is large enough they can be encouraged to pray along. It may be necessary for some brief privacy while a priest hears confession, but otherwise members of the household can and should join in prayer. It is certainly inappropriate for loud conversations to be taking place in the next room, for children to be playing video games and for any unnecessary activities to be taking place. It is to be hoped that even non-Catholics be respectful of the sacred rites, as they most often are. Usually just a word of invitation and encouragement is all that is needed.
  2. It is best for the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister to celebrate the rites right away. Surely a greeting and an inquiry of health is appropriate. But long conversations prior to the reception of Sacraments is inadvisable. After the celebration of the Sacraments longer and cordial conversations can take place. It is sometimes the case that the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister has other stops to make and, after the rites is still carrying the host with them. In such a case it is not wrong to have conversation with the sick person as this is an act of charity. However, one ought to balance the fact of the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and the need for conversation with prudence and reverence. Staying for lunch and lengthy chatty visits etc. is discouraged in such cases.
  3. Reverential prayer and celebration of the rites is also necessary for those who bring communion.
  4. Those who bring communion to the sick should go straightway to them and not stop at stores. It is best to drive in silence, pray or listen to religious music rather than secular radio in carrying the Blessed Sacrament.

 So, here are some recommendations. Feel free to add to them in the comments and make necessary distinctions. Remember all of this is not possible all the time. The recommendations are made in hopes of provoking thought and discussion on the question of reverence in sick calls. They are made more as gentle reminders than polemical pronouncements. I do not assume that any one intends to be irreverent. It is just that we have become very casual these days and reminders seem opportune.

10 Replies to “Restoring Greater Reverence to Sick Calls”

  1. I remember the sick kits in our homes, but they were never used.
    They didn’t want to ‘scare’ Grandpa so he never saw a priest before he died at home.
    Mom died at the hospital, Dad was sick and nobody even knew she had died, luckily they
    had called a priest who gave her the sacraments a few days before she died.
    I don’t even have a kit its like nobody says you need one anymore, living in California is sometimes
    living on another ethereal plane.
    The priests never want to ‘offend, chastise, remind, or
    even repeat anything the Pope says” for fear they will get rebuked by members of the congregation.
    I never seen so many priests running scared for fear they wont’ have enough money to run the church
    or just don’t like being reprimanded by parishioners.
    I hope the new priests have more courage, these older priests are like chaff in the wind.

    1. Yes, it is true that we priests have to do a better job explaining and setting forth at least minimal expectations. I am not sure it is always a concern over money that is involved. In the end it is the usual human foiable that we just don’t want an argument or for people to be upset. I wrote on this earler on the question of “human respect. I suppose ultimately if a priest collected too many adversaries in a parish it would affect the money but generally it is just that priests, like many are avoidant when it comes to conflict. Not saying its good just saying it’s so.

  2. As one who has spent numerous days in the hospital and home-bound, I can say that these thing are helpful. However, what is troubling to myself and other with whom I have spoken is that cavalier way that the EMHCs bring the Blessed Sacrament. First of, it is usually very difficult to get a sick call on Sunday. Then, it is difficult to get an EMHC to follow the rite. Usually there is only an opening prayer, maybe a Gospel, the Our Father and then reception of Holy Communion and a closing prayer. What is the point of the rite for reception of Holy Communion outside of Mass if the EMHC don’t even bother to carry a copy? I am very grateful for those that sacrifice their time to visit the sick. I just wish it was done more prayerfully and reverently. When I am sick this is my only chance to worship the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and I would like to take some time to do so rather than breaking into chit-chat as soon as you come in and then as soon as you have given me the Eucharist.

      1. Blake, i wish this too. Deacon brings me Communion once, maybe twice a week. It is so casual! When he begins, we say the Our Father together, He recites the Kyrie and hands me the Eucharist. Then, nothing. So one day, i had the Anima Christi pulled up on my computer. As i began praying it out loud, he looked startled and joined in. He told me he hadn’t heard the Anima Christi, post Communion in years. It is so casual, i often think, why not just had it to me and be off with you. It saddens me. Even though i do not have to fast, i do, Even if Communion isn’t until 2:00 PM or later. i prepare for the Eucharist very carefully, because this IS Christ coming to me. Yet he doesn’t even wash his hands before we start. Discouraging!

  3. It is humbly uplifting to bring the Eucharist to people in the hospital. Deo Gratias!

  4. Maybe a relative should have the “Dies Irae” from Mozart’s Requiem playing as that would be appropriate!

  5. Msgr.

    How do you purify your fingers after giving the Eucharist to someone on a sick call? Is a bowl of water is brought to you and your purify your fingers and then take the bowl of water outside and poor it into the ground? Do the others that help you follow the same procedure?

  6. Msgr. Pope,
    I know that a few days have passed since you wrote this great post, but I was wondering if you would consider writing a similar one for priests.

    I myself am a young priest and I regularly struggle with how to act during sick calls and hospital visits…

    Here are a few questions that many priests have:
    1) When taking communion to numerous sick people in the Hospital, should we take many hosts with us all at once? If so (and it seems necessary as a practical measure), do you recommend that we visit with the patients?…since we will be carrying our Lord with us all the time.
    2) How would you recommend the purification of the fingers (when going from room to room to room)?
    3) Any advice about how to carry out the sacrament of Penance, especially if doctors/nurses are around or if there is another sick person in a nearby bed?
    4) Should the priest wear cassock and surplice? Is this recommended or required? The “custom” in most places is for the priest to wear a suit and then bring a white/purple double stole….

    (I have looked at the Rubrical Norms, but pastoral judgement is where I am particularly unclear)

    I’m sure that there are many more insights you could offer your brother priests!
    Any advice in respect to the proper spiritual disposition would also be helpful.

    Thank you for all your great work!

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