30 October, 2011

Pastoral Reflection - Communion in Care Homes

This is a pseudo-theological reflection about ministry in nursing homes; specifically about brining Holy Communion to the residents. This type of reflections (or journal entries) are required by IME 4-7.
Pretty soon after my arrival in the parish I was asked to distribute Holy Communion to two local nursing homes. Needless to say, this type of ministry is somewhat overlooked by most theological colleges and training schemes and as a consequence I found myself wondering whether or not I could do this task satisfactorily on my first attempt. 
Moreover, as a deacon, I knew that the distribution of Holy Communion fell traditionally under the remit of my ministry; but I must admit initially I felt a little unsure about “stepping on someone else’s territory” as usually this ministry was led by a small and committed group of lay people. However, none of my fears actually materialised and those already involved in this ministry seemed very happy both for me to tag along and to show me the ropes. Indeed, they also seemed very pleased to have an ordained person with them when the vicar could not accompany them. 
I remember going to nursing homes when I was little with my dad to see my Nan, but then again, those were different times – well; only 20 years ago – and it was a very different place from St Ives and Great Britain in general. So I guess my theological reflection on ministry in nursing homes is formed by three main factors (a) my Italian experience of care homes; (b) the ministerial formation with the elderly acquired on placements and at theological college; and (c) my extremely limited experience as a deacon.

In a way, factor (a) could only generate a sense of melancholy towards a time when extensive visits from the parish priest ware a daily feature in most care homes, not just in Christian ones. However, I do remember that even my bishop (in Italy) took the time to write a pastoral letter about the elderly. He exhorted his local Church to care passionately for elderly people, but he also encouraged intercessory prayer amongst the house-bound and those in nursing homes. I am pretty sure that in all this there are lessons we could learn for the here-and-now 21st century Britain. Making another kind of comparison with Italy would bring me dangerously close to the slippery slope of singing the praises of one Country to the disadvantage of the other. However, I always feel very sad every time I visit a nursing home in the UK, more so than what I would feel in Italy as the level of care over here is not up to the same standards – which is in itself odd, given that the general feel of public care is higher in the UK. Some of the nursing homes’ conditions or lack of care are shocking.

Concerning (b); I am very grateful to the people whom I met my pre-ordination placements and with whom I have shared Communion in their homes. I am also grateful to my tutors for the sessions we had at college on ministry in care homes – or the current lack thereof. However, as I have said, I think there is a current lack of interest of our Church in the elderly and the house-bound. This doesn’t mean to be a harsh judgment upon a Church who is definitely manifesting a passion for ministry in general. It’s just an observation of a trend. The Church of England gives the impression to be just concerned with the Generation Y and whatnot; but it needn’t be. 
If we are really believing that ministry and the Gospel are open to anyone, that Jesus died for all – not for someone more than another – the our ministerial praxis should reflect this belief. Unfortunately, theological training offers invaluable opportunities for learning about children ministry, but it lacks in theological reflection about old age and all the things that go with it. “Children are the future of the Church” some might say, but – as much as I would be inclined to agree on a purely statistical point of view – I believe that Jesus is more interested in sharing His life with everyone equally, not in quotas. Moreover, He is already in our care homes suffering with those who have been confined there, with those who seem to have only death to look forward too – whether theirs or someone else’. I am incredibly grateful towards St Stephen’s House and Fr Damian Feeney in particular for making me aware once again of the importance of this forgotten ministry.

Point (c). My very limited experience as a deacon is that residents – and also staff, more often than not – are generally very pleased to see people from the church. A minority of people think that the Church is only here to “get them when they are weak”, and who can blame them when some denominations visit only to ram their hymns or Bible verses down other people’s throats. In this very specific type of ministry making disciples simply means sitting with people in their own circumstances and try our best to better their conditions in the name, and under the example given us by Our Lord (The Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us… John 1:14). In turn, the ones to whom we minister will feel empowered to do the same to others (aslo cf. Matt 25:36).

My last thought would be on Holy Communion. Dummying down things for elderly people, does not necessarily work very well. As Eucharistic ministers we bring the Body of our Lord to those who cannot attend Church. We do not bring “bread”. Most communicants will respond positively to doctrine and badly to being treated like imbeciles. 
One lady had me in stitches the other month, “The Body of Christ”, I said. “What? What?”, she replied. “It’s bread form the church. Do you want some bread from the church?” said loudly someone else. “No, thank you! I have my own bread!”, replied the lady.

Mary, health of the sick: Pray for us!

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