Few of us are wild about hospitals. Tubes, machines. Memories of loss and anguish. No privacy. Much anxiety. Very sick human beings in dehumanizing johnnies that do not help a patient’s dignity. Stagnant air. Can they ever open a window, maybe just one or two, to let in some sweet clean air and a breeze to billow the curtains?
No, they can’t. Most hospital windows don’t open. So it’s claustrophobic and it’s closed and it’s filled with dead air, sick air, air that smells like … a hospital.
But – but – last week I followed David Mosher, a volunteer Eucharistic minister, on his rounds at a hospital just outside of Boston where he goes from room to room offering Communion to Catholic patients. It was a hospital, of course, with all the unpleasantness mentioned above. Still, it was immediately obvious to me what this volunteering means to him, and what it means to patients and families who are there, unfortunately. Briefly, we hope.
“You’ve made my day … You’ve helped my pain,” said a middle-aged woman who told story after story from way back when. She spoke about wearing white gloves and lace mantillas to pre-Vatican 2 Mass. She spoke about how much she admires Pope Francis and how she enjoyed speaking to two complete strangers who, unlike her family, had never heard her stories before.
“Would you like Communion, pop?” another middle-aged woman asked her very sick, old father after Mosher knocked quietly on the door, came in, and said he’s from the chaplain’s office. Is there anything they need or that he can do?
The father spoke not at all, but motioned that, yes, he would like Communion. Mosher chatted to him and his daughter a bit and then began, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” He said the “Our Father.” He held the host. “This is the lamb of God.” He closed with a blessing and thanked the patient for the opportunity to share the Eucharist.
It takes about 10 minutes.
“You know, you walk into room and don’t know whether you’ll be received or not,” Mosher said. “There’s a lot of anger still toward the Church and that comes out. I’ve had people say to me, ‘No, I don’t want Communion. I’m upset with the pope.’ Or ‘I’m upset with the cardinals.’ Or ‘I haven’t been to church in years.’ Or, ‘I have an illegitimate child.’ People tell you things they won’t tell their families. That’s fine. You’re there to listen, not to judge.”
Mosher said he’s had people ask if they can call him “Father,” like a priest, which is okay by him. He said he’s had people ask, after he says he’s from the chaplain’s office, “Does that mean I’m going to die?” Some are joking. Some, perhaps, not.
Jacqueline Fitzpatrick, another Eucharistic minister hospital volunteer, calls her experience “transforming. It really helped my faith. I think you see through other people’s eyes how important religion can be. And when you see it multiple times in the course of one morning, it really is striking.”
Some patients get very emotional and start crying, she says. They’ll talk about how the sex abuse crisis robbed their faith, how the Church’s stands on certain issues made them feel unwelcome in their own parish. “I pray with them and give them a prayer card,” she says, typically one with a picture of Christ on one side and the 23rd Psalm on the other. “You’d think I was giving them a million dollars.” To couples in the maternity ward – the usually happy place she saves for last on her rounds – she gives out a special prayer cards with guardian angels and little children. “The family will say, ‘Can you bless the baby?’ The chaplain here says that’s fine, so I just say a prayer and give the baby a blessing.”
“It’s funny the people that most often say ‘no’ to Communion are men. I don’t know why that is. One man told me he hadn’t been to church in years, but yes, he would like Communion.” While she was praying with him and giving him the Eucharist, he suddenly began weeping. He explained that it’d been so long for him, he’d forgotten the words of “The Lord’s Prayer.”
David Mosher and Jacqueline Fitzpatrick volunteer at Newton-Wellesley Hospital outside of Boston, where they are lucky to have many volunteers in the chaplain’s office for Catholic patients as well as those of other religions. Urban hospitals, particularly those with no or expensive parking, aren’t so fortunate, chaplains say.
Like many other volunteers, Mosher and Fitzpatrick are retired and ready to “give back,” as Mosher put it. But he also says what volunteers in any capacity also do: that the “give back” has been as much to him as to the patients he sees.
Today it’s the rare patient who remains hospitalized for more than a few days. So stays are short but often scary, filled with uncertainty and roiling family dynamics and maybe even the first realization that the end of life is near. Volunteers offering the Eucharist enter into that very vulnerable moment with comfort and hope, a hope patients may long ago have pushed away.
Mosher calls that the action of the Holy Spirit. And there are times, in a hospital room, with a volunteer saying prayers and a blessing and a patient ready to receive, that you can feel it.
“Thank you very much for the opportunity to share this Eucharist today,” Mosher told a patient last week, “for sharing in our sickness and health and our happiness and sorrow.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you and make His face shine upon you,” he said, “until we complete this journey and we all come to see You face to face.”