Recently many of our dioceses have been making strong efforts to find ways to invite Catholics who have fallen away from the Church to come back home. A recent attempt was made this past Lent in the Archdiocese of Boston to do exactly that. Every parish was asked to set aside two hours a week to make confessions more available for people who were looking for the opportunity to confess. And I hear that many people took advantage of that opportunity. It might even have brought some of our lost sheep back home. 

More recently I hear that this same archdiocese is planning to pay for ads to be put on TV and radio, in newspapers and public notices, and to set up websites, inviting Catholics who have left the Church to come back home. This is all very praiseworthy. And I’m sure these attempts will reach a lot of people who are looking for encouragement to come back home. 

But what about those fallen-away Catholics who do not seem to be interested in coming back home? What about them? How are they to be reached? Our parishes and most of our church ministries are focused mostly on saving the saved. We don’t find many fallen-away Catholics coming to Mass on Sunday, nor do we find them praying before the Blessed Sacrament. These fallen-away Catholics keep away from these things, because they are too caught up in other things that took them away from the Church in the first place. How can we reach them? 

This reminds me of a meeting we had in our community recently, during which we were discussing what more we could do to increase vocations to priestly and religious life. It was mentioned that we had tried every trick in the book: advertisements on Internet websites, invitations to groups, telephone calls and letters, and nothing seemed to be working. Then someone in the group reminded us of the program that many parishes had adopted recently for this very purpose: to try to increase vocations. 

The program was the Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, during which time people were asked to pray specifically for vocations. If the lay people were asked to do this, shouldn’t we, as priests, be taking the first step in doing this? If nothing else seems to be working, why not give this a serious try? 

Besides prayer, it dawned on me just recently how great an opportunity I have, working as a hospital chaplain, to reach fallen-away Catholics. If there is any place we can come in contact with them more easily, it is in hospitals. They are there waiting for us. But the question is: what is the best way to approach them so as not to offend them, but rather to achieve the best results?  

I’ve been in hospital ministry for more than 25 of my 51 years as a priest, but for a long time I made no changes in the way I was approaching patients. I went about my ministry as though I were in charge, without asking anyone to help me to make my ministry more effective. But then, I recently asked myself the question: am I really doing everything possible to help fallen-away Catholics come back home? Could I use another approach with them that would help them even more, spiritually? 

There are certain things in hospital ministry that make this ministry very different from others. One of the greatest differences is that the physical and mental status of most of these patients in the hospital is drastically different from the condition of people you would find in Church, on the street or in their homes.  

And then another difference is that my approaching these patients without my being invited to do so is very different than if I were to approach them after they had asked me to see them. Maybe they do not want to see a priest at this time. Maybe my unrequested and unannounced visit to them might cause them a bit too much anxiety and fear. And these are not only maybes; I have encountered both of these situations in the hospital dozens of times. 

In the hospital where I work, the day starts off by pulling out of the computer a list of Catholic patients who are in the hospital that day. I would have anywhere from 80 to 100 Catholic patients on any given day. These are not Catholics who have asked specifically to see me, but some of whom I will choose to visit that day.  

When patients are first admitted into the hospital, they are asked their religious affiliation. All of those who sign themselves in as Catholics may not be practicing Catholics. Many of them have not seen the inside of a church for years. But I would not know that when I first visit them. And so, how I approach them, what I say to them and how I say it is very important, depending on each patient’s physical and mental status. 

When I start my day at the hospital, I know that I am not going to be able to visit all the Catholic patients on the list. I will have to try to figure out who might need my presence more. And so, before leaving my office, I always say this prayer: “Lord, lead me to those who need me.” And believe me, that prayer is answered every time.  

It is not uncommon that I enter the room of a patient by mistake — one whom I had not planned to visit — and be greeted with: “Gee, am I happy to see you today. I was hoping someone would come around.” And then they go on to tell me why they wanted to see me so urgently. Now, you tell me, who led me to that patient that day? It certainly wasn’t my own doing. 

Intensive Care Unit 

Besides calling on those patients to whom the Lord leads me, I have other priorities which lead me to visit certain other patients. We have three intensive care units in the hospital with a total of 50 beds. Like all the other patients in the hospital, about half of these patients would be Catholic. I try to visit each of them and give the anointing for healing to those who have not yet received it. Now most of these patients would be unconscious when I first visit them. I simply give them conditional absolution and then anoint them with the sacred oils.  

One priest once questioned me as to how I could do this without knowing whether these patients were in the state of grace. I told him that I simply give them the benefit of the doubt, give them conditional absolution and then anoint them. And then I go back to visit them later on, when they are conscious and able to communicate. I tell them what I have done for them and up till now, none of them have complained. 

As for the semi-conscious patients and those who are ‘‘intubated’’ and cannot speak, I introduce myself to them and ask them if they would like to be anointed. Ninety-nine percent of them blink their eyes and say “yes.” Then I tell them that I am going to give them a sacrament and so they should tell God that they are really sorry for all their past sins. Again they blink their eyes and say “Ok.” Then I give them absolution and anoint them.  

I know that there are other chaplains who would not be comfortable with this approach. But the way I see it, these patients are in enough stress already, without my making things worse for them. I simply give them the benefit of the doubt and then, when I visit them later on, when they are able to speak more easily, if there are issues that come up, we settle them then. 

Then there are a number of patients in the regular wards who are over 80 years old. I try to visit all of these also, even though I have often found out that they are not the ones who really need my help the most, though they all appreciate my visit very much.  

Physically they seem to be in better condition at 80+ years old than many of the younger patients. And besides that, I find that most of these older patients are good, practicing Catholics. They were brought up at a time when families were more connected and went to Sunday Mass regularly, and they have continued to do so. 

My next priority is to try to focus on those patients who have been in the hospital for more than a week. If they are there for that long, it must be because they are very sick, as most patients go home within three to five days. How must I minister to these patients?  

Remember, I have never met them before nor do I know if they are practicing Catholics. One thing I have to remember before approaching them is that I who am approaching them am uninvited, and it is not they who have asked to see me. That makes a big difference.  

If they are not practicing Catholics, they might not be interested in seeing a priest at this time. They might have on their minds a lot of other things more important to them than a visit by a priest; for instance, the stress caused by the gravity of their illness, the pain they are suffering physically and mentally, the painful treatment they are undergoing, the family and work they have left behind, or just plain being bored by having to stay in the hospital for so long.  

I have met all of these situations dozens of times. But I can say that 99% of these patients were happy that a priest stopped in to visit them, especially if he was not there to try to pressure them in any way. 

As I said at the beginning of this article, ever since I first began hospital ministry back in 1959, I have pretty much kept to my own way of approaching and dealing with patients in the hospital. I can’t count how many mistakes I must have made. And I can’t be absolutely sure that I’m still not making mistakes even today.  

I hear of all kinds of approaches made by different hospital chaplains when visiting the sick in hospitals. Some priests, before offering them Communion, would ask the patients if they are practicing Catholics, if they go to Mass regularly on Sunday, etc. I don’t go there. After all, do parish priests, before giving Communion to people who come to Mass on Christmas and Easter, ask them if they are practicing Catholics, even though one could guess that many of these have not seen the inside of a church since the last Christmas or Easter? Of course not! And so, why should I do that to patients in the hospital who are under much more stress? 

I try to be careful not to turn Catholics away, but at the same time, I have to ask myself if I am doing enough to encourage them to lead better lives, especially if they have been away from the Church for some time. How do I reach that delicate balance between minding my own business and encouraging them to return home to the Church? 

Just recently I made a big change in the way I had been approaching patients before, concerning the reception of the sacraments in the hospital. Before, my practice was, after introducing myself and chatting with the patients for a while, to tell them that I have with me the Eucharist and ask them if they would like to receive Communion now, or would they prefer to wait till later on. I added that important “or wait till later on” to my question quite some time ago, just to give the patients a comfortable way of saying “no” if they were not prepared to receive Communion now.  

I came to realize that, in the past, without that “or wait till later on,” some who were not practicing Catholics were receiving Communion because they found it embarrassing to say “no” to a priest who was offering them the Eucharist. I also tell my extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to use the same option when they are offering Communion to the patients. 

‘Has It Been a Long While?’ 

In the past, if a patient told me that he would like to wait until later on to receive communion, that would have been the end of our conversation, as far as sacraments go. But now I have come to realize that I can do a bit more to help them spiritually. After they tell me they would prefer to wait, I now ask them: “Tell me, has it been a long while since your last Communion?”  

I find that this is a non-threatening question and that they are not offended by it. They answer it quite easily and quickly. And after they tell me “yes, it has been a long time,” I now tell them: “No pressure, I’m here for you. If you would like to go to confession while you are here, I have a beeper and I can be reached. Just tell the nurse to call me and I’ll come up to see you.”  

I started this practice a week before I began writing this article, and I’ve had a terrific response. The first three patients with whom I used this new interaction told me, “Yes, I would like to go to confession now. I’ve been away from the Church for quite some time and I would like to get back.” This response surprised me very much because I thought they would say something like, “Thanks a lot, Father, but I’ll call you later.” And that would have been the end of it.  

No, these three patients made a beautiful confession after which they all said, “Gee, I feel better already!” I was so happy to hear that reaction, but it didn’t surprise me. To me, this was God’s way of telling me, “That’s the way I want you to go from now on.” And so now I use this interaction with all the patients who say “later” when asked if they wanted to receive Communion now, and it has worked well for a lot of them. 

But for those patients who tell me they still would rather wait till later on — and there are still many of these — I would remind them of how good God has been to all of us, even when we don’t deserve it, and especially to them, while they were in the hospital, and how we all owe Him so much thanks and reverence for what He has done for us. And then I go on to encourage them to try to get to confession as soon as they can when they get home. That’s all I can do for now. Who knows? The seed has been planted again, and we can only hope that it will grow new fruit. 

Now I ask myself why I didn’t use this new interaction with patients long before now? Why did it take so long for me to wake up? That is a good question that all of us priests must ask ourselves if we feel that our ministry is not producing the results it should. And the answer to that question is very simple. It is because we are working by ourselves, doing what we think is best, but failing to ask God specifically for the help we need to make our ministry more effective.  

How many others patients could I have helped to make a good confession and return to the Lord if I had done this sooner? We have a lot of problems in our Church and in our country today. There is a lack of vocations to priestly and religious life; there is a failure of Catholics to receive the sacraments, especially confession; there is a failure of Catholics to attend Sunday Mass regularly; there is a failure of Catholics to practice their faith in general.  

And then there are all the immoral practices in our society that are pulling our Catholics away from the Church. We are trying everything we can to correct these problems, but often times we are not succeeding. We need help. 

I really believe that we all need to spend the bare minimum of 30 minutes a day — preferably one hour — before the Blessed Sacrament, in silent, personal prayer and reflection, where we can ask God to tell us what more we must do to make our ministry more effective, and then listen to what He is calling us to do. We must ask Him for this because we are not succeeding in solving many of the problems in our Church today by ourselves. This is absolutely necessary. He will tell us, as He has told me, what we are to add to what we are doing in order to make our ministry more effective. 

Without this we are going to continue to lose ground. I thank God for finally waking me up to realize the importance of the Daily Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament. It took a long time in coming, 45 years of priesthood, but it is worth it. And the more I make my Holy Hour, the more I find my ministry more effective and more enjoyable. I’m only sorry I did not wake up to this realization 50 years ago. 

Let me finish off this piece by quoting from the Apostolic Constitution Divino Afflatu of Pope Pius X that I found in the Breviary’s Second Reading on the feast day of St. Pius X. He writes, “The Psalms seem to me to be like a mirror, in which the person using them can see himself and the stirrings of his own heart; he can recite them against the background of his own emotions.”  

If we can pray the Psalms in this way, they can help us in our prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. And I’m sure they will give us all a great boost. TP 

Father Bourgea is a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston.