Published March 30, 2006
I visited one of our Marist priests this past weekend who was in the hospital. When I entered his room, he told me, “It’s a good thing you arrived now rather than an hour ago; there would not have been space for you in the room.” It was filled with members of a family that he has known for many years—kids, parents, and all! He was obviously quite proud of the crowd of friends who remembered him during his illness.
The hospital is an important place for connecting with people.
It is especially important for people who belong to communities of Faith to know that they are remembered in prayer and in the affection of their brothers and sisters in the parish. Sickness can be a frightening experience for all of us and especially for those who must leave their homes and families for a stay in the hospital. We all are susceptible to feeling isolated under those circumstances. Although hospitals do their very best to welcome and to help their patients feel secure and comfortable, it is still a new environment and people with a serious illness need the reassurance and consolation of their family and friends. Visiting the sick is one of the Corporal Works of Mercy and a virtuous practice that has long been listed as an important way for Christians to care for one another.
Recent federal regulations (the Health Information Privacy Act (HIPA)) that now manage the privacy of patients have restricted hospitals and doctors from being able to pass on information on those who are hospitalized. These regulations severely limit the ability of hospitals to notify parishes and pastors about just who may be in the hospital. Thus parishes and pastors often simply do not know who among their parishioners are hospitalized. So while patients often wait for visits from the clergy and their fellow parishioners, parishes frequently may not have the slightest clue that one of their faithful in the hospital. Today with briefer hospitals stays, people may come and go without ever having a visit from their clergy. As much as my brother priests and deacons and I might want to visit our people—we might not know of their hospital stay.
If a patient enters the hospital and does not specifically permit notification of their parish community, the information is not available. This is frequently the case when a patient may be disoriented when they enter the hospital or if there is an emergency that prompts their hospitalization. Parishes rely on members of the family to notify them of their relative’s visit to the hospital. Neighbors can also share that data with parishes. Hospitals may not even be able publicly to identify the religious faith of a patient without proper permission.
Parishes should regularly notify their parishioners of the importance of allowing the hospital to notify pastors and parishes of their hospitalization and of their desire to have visits from their religious communities. Such notices can be made in the church bulletin on a regular basis so that we all remember to permit our faith heritage and parish affiliation to be shared with the appropriate persons.
Several weeks ago, I received a letter from a Catholic here in the archdiocese who was quite annoyed at the solicitation for the Annual Archbishop’s Appeal. The letter stated that there had been a double hospitalization within the family and no one from the parish had visited either parishioner. Angrily they expressed their disappointment with this lack of pastoral care. I wrote a personal letter of apology. It mattered little if the parish or pastor had known of the circumstances of the hospitalization of those parishioners. People under those conditions are not looking for excuses but only for a sincere expression of regret. We all need to remember how comforting it is for people in the hospital to be assured of the prayers and affection of their clergy and fellow parishioners. For those who have been so disappointed, the Church should plainly tell them of our sorrow for not comforting them during a time of distress.
We are urged to visit the sick by none other than the Lord Himself: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ … He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’” (Mt 25:37,40)