Witnessing the Love of Our Lord

The Ministry of Pastoral Care

Truly following Jesus has always included care of the sick and the suffering. Throughout His public ministry, Jesus showed His compassion toward the sick by His many healings. Jesus went all around Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people. As His fame spread, those who were sick with various diseases, including those in pain and those with both mental and physical illnesses, were brought to Him and He cured them. (Mt 4:23-24) But miraculous healings are only a part of what Jesus did for those in distress.

Just as Jesus calmed the stormy seas as the stormy winds blew over the Sea of Galilee, bringing peace to His disciples in their time of distress, all of us can be present to others who are suffering. In a similar way, by His presence and willingness to intercede for the wedding couple at Cana, Jesus brought calm by His presence with others in their time of distress. So, too, we can participate in the healing ministry of Jesus.

And as His followers, Jesus asks us to share in His ministry of compassion and healing. In His teaching on the judgment of the nations, Jesus said the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, a stranger and you welcomed Me, naked and you clothed Me, ill and you cared for Me, in prison and you visited Me.” (Mt 25:34-36). From these teachings and the many miraculous healings of Jesus, we understand the importance that Our Lord placed on the care of the sick.  Caring for the sick is an essential corporal work of mercy.

As followers of Jesus, we are to continue this mission, for as he said, “He who receives you receives Me.” (Mt 10:40) And as He told His Apostles, “As the Father has sent Me, even so I send you.” (Jn 20:21) Pastoral care of the sick and the homebound is an essential part of being a parish priest. Offering the sacraments of anointing of the sick, reconciliation, and Holy Communion are effective ways that priests can bring Jesus to those who are suffering, facing surgeries or medical procedures, and those who are dying. Priests and bishops are ministers of the anointing of the sick. The faithful are encouraged to call for a priest to receive this sacrament when facing illness, suffering, or requiring medical procedures. In addition to offering the sacraments, the whole ecclesial community is invited to surround the sick with their prayers and fraternal care. However, care of the sick, the homebound, and the disabled is not limited to priests.

Effective pastoral ministry involves the entire parish, including priests, deacons, religious sisters and brothers, and the laity. All of us should offer compassion to our fellow human beings in their times of suffering.

Being present with a friend, family member, or fellow parishioner in their time of suffering brings them solace, gives meaning to their suffering, and offers them hope. All of us can witness the love of Our Lord to our fellow human beings in this way.

Pastoral care also involves visiting those who are hospitalized. Because this includes not just parishioners but also patients who often live far away, many parishes have organized teams of volunteers to visit. These teams include lay extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion who bring the Blessed Sacrament to Catholics. Visiting those parishioners who are homebound is another essential part of pastoral care. While a priest typically visits those who are homebound and those in assisted living or nursing homes two or three times a year, lay volunteers visit these parishioners on a more frequent basis. In fact, lay volunteers are highly effective as they have often known these individuals and their families for a considerable amount of time and have developed important relationships with them. One of the lessons we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance of including those who are physically unable to attend Mass in the liturgies of the Church through on-line streaming. Even as the severity of the pandemic has declined, the value of including the homebound in the Mass by this technology has been an important lesson and many parishes will continue to offer this valuable service.

Being with people in their moment of need is what Jesus did and what He calls us to do. By sharing in the lives of those in physical or mental distress, we offer comfort and compassion, just as Jesus did. As Pope Francis has emphasized, we find Christ to the extent that we accompany people on the way; on their journey through life. An important, and often underrecognized, part of the ministry of pastoral care is that those who journey with the sick and the homebound often find that they receive even more solace and spiritual insight than those to whom they minister.  For, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “It is in giving that we receive.”

The ministry of pastoral care is a way of following the example of Jesus in which we can all assist our pastor, our parishioners, their families, and one another. In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body on earth but ours, no hands, but ours, no feet, but ours. Ours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ looks out upon the world. Ours are the feet with which He goes about doing good. Ours are the hands with which He blesses His people.” By establishing and by living out the ministry of pastoral care, we can offer the compassion and love of Jesus to our brothers and sisters and grow ever closer to Our Lord.

Father Joe Culotta currently serves as pastor of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Birmingham. He last served as pastor of St. Mark the Evangelist Pariah for 14 years and prior as pastor of Annunciation of the Lord Parish in Decatur for 12 years. The past eight years, he has also served as Vicar for Clergy in the Diocese Of Birmingham. He and his family are from the Birmingham area.