One of the most important works of mercy we can do is to visit the sick. As we are living in a time where there is a movement to euthanize people with chronic illnesses and to encourage them to seek death through physician-assisted suicide, they need to know that their lives have value because they are loved by God. As Catholics, we can witness to God’s love and show people who are sick that we love them too.
In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II explains that the sick need to know people care about them: “The request which arises from the human heart in the supreme confrontation with suffering and death, especially when faced with the temptation to give up in utter desperation, is above all a request for companionship, sympathy and support in the time of trial. It is a plea for help to keep on hoping when all human hopes fail.” (67) It is our role as Catholics to encourage people who are sick or dying and give them hope.
Unfortunately, some people are uncomfortable visiting the sick and may even avoid visiting their relatives. Perhaps they are afraid of contracting an illness in a hospital or nursing home, or are upset by seeing someone who is suffering, or don’t want to be reminded of their own mortality. Other people may become busy with work or taking care of their family, and think they have no time. Consequently, many sick people are left alone.
My first experience with pastoral care ministry to the sick was while volunteering in a parish in England. A priest asked if I would accompany him on his visits to parishioners who were homebound, in hospitals, and in nursing homes. From Father Liam, I learned how to listen to, talk to, and pray with people suffering from illness and loneliness. Father Liam also taught me to prepare for a visit by prayer, and often prayed the Rosary with me on the way to see the parishioners.
Visiting the sick, one of the corporal works of mercy, can also involve some of the spiritual works of mercy. You may have to counsel a person who is doubtful, instruct a person who is ignorant of God’s love or the value of suffering, or comfort a person who is sorrowful. You will pray for the people you visit while they are living and after they die. Indeed, prayer is the greatest way you will help them.
There are many opportunities to visit the sick. We can visit our relatives, friends, and neighbors with health problems, volunteer for pastoral care ministry in our parish or diocese, or volunteer at a hospital or nursing home. People with dementia are among the most forgotten of the sick. They still need visitors and often respond to people’s kindness. Parishes and dioceses often provide some pastoral care training. It is also helpful to receive training in communicating with people with dementia.
If we know people who are sick who live a long distance from us, we can still show we care by writing cards, letters, and emails, and calling to talk with them. It is important not to make people feel you are doing them a favor by visiting them. Their spending time with us should be seen as a gift. We should ask if it is a good time for a visit and how long they would like us to stay. We should let people who are sick know they are needed. By their prayers and by offering up their suffering to God, they are helping others.
Being present with people in health care facilities can be one of the ways to bring about a culture of life and end the euthanasia movement. Not only will you be giving encouragement to the people with health problems, but you will also give an example of true mercy to the people who work in those facilities, who may not all accept the Church’s pro-life teachings. By our spending time with the patients, it shows that their lives are valuable.
As he related in There Are No Accidents, when Father Benedict Groeschel, CFR was recovering from his accident in 2004, he observed there were many people in the nursing home where he was staying who were all alone and asked: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, in our society, it became a custom among Christians to visit one sick person or lonely person in a nursing home or hospital every week?”
Some Suggestions for Visiting the Sick
Before going on a visit, you should pray for the person you will see and ask Mary, who is the Mother of Mercy, to help you during your visit.
You can ask the people you visit if they would like to pray with you, and let them know you are praying for them. When visiting someone who is in the hospital, your visits will usually be short, as they will be resting much of the time. If you visit someone in a nursing home, you may develop a friendship and visit on a regular basis, such as once a week, or more often if the person doesn’t have many visitors. In a nursing home, you may also be able to help the person you visit with non-medical needs such as bringing him to the chapel or outside (if that is allowed by the nurses), or if the person doesn’t see well, reading a book aloud. Catholics with dementia may remember traditional prayers and enjoy praying the Rosary with you.
When visiting someone who is dying, I think it is important to tell the person you are praying for him and remind him of God’s love and mercy. It can be comforting to the dying person to have someone stay quietly in his room, praying. In His revelations to St. Faustina, Jesus recommended the Chaplet of Divine Mercy as a prayer that can bring special graces for people who are dying. With Catholic relatives and friends, we should also ask if they have received anointing of the sick, and if not, help make arrangements for it.
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