In my Parish, I work with the men of the Holy Name Society and the women of the Sodality to ensure that the numerous sick are visited regularly. I try to visit each of the sick members of my parish at least once per quarter to ensure that they have had Confession and the Anointing of the Sick. But since I do not have an assistant priest, as a general rule I must depend on the men and women of these organizations to bring Holy Communion to the sick on a more frequent basis.
We met as a group some time ago and had an interesting discussion about a concern voiced by many: that of a lack of reverence. When they arrive at the home of the sick individual, it is not uncommon to find a television blaring, and that the person to whom they are bringing Holy Communion has not been prepared by others to receive the Eucharist. Often, the extraordinary minister must ask that the television be turned down and that others prayerfully participate. I, too, upon visiting many of the sick encounter similar issues: loud televisions, 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 their family members for this situation. I blame myself and my fellow clergy, many (though not all) of whom have failed to teach or explain to parishioners and family members (some of whom are not Catholic) the proper protocol in this matter.
I explained to the extraordinary ministers 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. Sick calls have become very informal over the past forty 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 Holy Communion and/or Anointing of the Sick was a matter of some formality. Most homes had a “Sick Call Set” on hand that included things like a crucifix, 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. 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 with him, casual talking was kept to a minimum. As he left, if he still had the Blessed Sacrament, he was again escorted by a family member with a candle.
Now what is described in the paragraph above did vary based on location and circumstances. First Friday Holy Communions were more formal than others. On the other hand, emergencies might cause the exclusion of some of the formalities. And there were also ethnic differences. Other factors (e.g., the catholicity of other family members and how devout each family was) were also taken into account. But what I described above was the usual practice, give or take a few details.
In recent times, though, most of these details have fallen away. As with so many things in our culture, we have become very casual, very informal with sick calls. But it may be beneficial for us to rediscover some of the older practices in order to restore greater reverence. I would like to suggest a few matters of protocol for your reflection. I will begin with a few disclaimers and then offer some suggestions.
- 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 do not permit the burning of candles. Hence, prudential judgment should be used to determine what is necessary, possible, or even advisable.
- Family situations may also affect the preparation of the sick call altar and other protocols. 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.
- Not all the implements mentioned above are necessary for every sick call. Sometimes there will not be anointing. If that is the case, then a fair number of the items are not necessary. Even if there is an anointing, not every item may be required.
- What follows are recommendations only, not absolute requirements. The hope is to instill some thoughtfulness as to the reverence due to the occasion of a sick call. Reverence is not a pure science. Externals can and do help, but ultimately it is our internal disposition that is most important.
- 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.
- Consider preparing the place where the sacraments will be celebrated. If possible and necessary, tidy up a bit.
- Consider preparing a sick call table or altar. Most commonly such a table includes at least a candle, and preferably a crucifix and two candles. A small glass of water is helpful since a sick person can sometimes have trouble swallowing the host. A spoon can be useful 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. If the priest is going to anoint the sick person, it may be useful to have some cotton balls for him to wipe his fingers. If he does use them, though, they should later be burned. Bread and lemons can be used to help the priest to purify his fingers after anointing, but they are rarely necessary and should not be supplied unless the priest asks for them ahead of time.
- Sick call sets containing many of these items are available through Catholic catalogues (for example, HERE).
- If possible and advisable, have the sick person awake and aware that the sacraments are about to be celebrated.
- Be sure that when the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister arrives, the television, radio, etc. are turned 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.
- 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 all be encouraged to pray along. It may be necessary for some brief privacy while the 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 unnecessary activities to be taking place. Even non-Catholics should be respectful of the sacred rites. Usually just a word of invitation/encouragement is all that is needed.
- It is best for the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister to celebrate the rites without delay. Surely a greeting is appropriate, but long conversations prior to the reception of sacraments is inadvisable. After the celebration of the sacraments, longer conversations may take place. Sometimes the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister has other stops to make and thus is still carrying the Blessed Sacrament. In such a case it is not wrong to have a conversation with the sick person as an act of charity, but 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 are discouraged in such cases.
- Reverential prayer and celebration of the rites is also necessary for those who bring Holy Communion.
- Those who bring Holy Communion to the sick should go immediately to them and not make stops along the way there. While transporting the Blessed Sacrament it is best to drive in silence, pray, or listen to religious music rather than secular radio.
So those are some of my recommendations. Remember that all of these are not possible all of the time. The recommendations are made in the hope of provoking thought and discussion about 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. I invite you to chime in with your additions and/or critiques in the comment section.