By BILL CLARKE, Commentary | Published May 5, 2017
“Old friends are like beautiful memories. They may not always be on your mind, but they are forever in your heart.”
– Susan Gale
Several years ago I was chatting with a fellow parishioner on our way out of Sunday Mass. He was responsible for the Eucharistic ministry to the homebound and was about to start his Sunday rounds to bring the Eucharist to the sick and homebound. Out of the blue he asked if I would like to accompany him. I immediately thought of a hundred reasons why I couldn’t, but none of them were valid. I timidly responded, “Sure, I’d love to go with you.”
That chance meeting changed my life.
We visited three elder assisted-care facilities and a couple of private homes. I met some really extraordinary people. At each stop, the communicants were anxiously awaiting our visit. We would chat with them and listen to their stories. Then my friend would conduct the Eucharistic service culminating in the receiving of the Body of Christ.
I was struck by the transformation in the recipient before and after receiving the sacred host. One could sense deeply the presence of God. The communicants, especially the elders, understood the significance of the occasion. They were reverent, awed and thankful—not at all like some Catholics who seem to take the Eucharist for granted.
Recently a deacon told me about a person who had just received Communion and on the way back to their pew took out their smartphone to check messages. I pray that he was texting God.
The Eucharist experience in the elder care home left an indelible impression on my soul.
The last stop that morning was to a private home where I met Jack, a man who would become a dear friend over the next year or two. Jack was 92 years old but had the mind and spunk of a much younger man. His bedroom was a bright sunroom in the rear of the home overlooking his garden, which also afforded him some privacy from Mary, his private duty nurse.
Jack was a happy-go-lucky Irishman, full of humor, stories and a life history that could have filled the experiences of more than a dozen men. Jack regaled us with his vivid descriptions of his worldwide escapades. He was full of energy, with a sparkle in his eye and an intense desire to relive his life experiences by sharing them with us.
On the way back to the parish my ministry friend asked me if I would be interested in helping him visit his communicants each week. I told him I would think about it. It meant that I would have to go through training and forego my personal plans for Sunday mornings and part of the afternoon. I told him I would pray on it.
The following week I tagged along with my ministry friend. We visited the same facilities and ended up at Jack’s home. After spending another hour or so with Jack, I knew that God wanted me to become a part of this ministry. Jack was simply God’s instrument to arouse my interest. On the way home I told my friend that I would be blessed to help him.
Thus began my journey in dealing with the Eucharistic ministry to the homebound.
Taking the Eucharist to God’s people
I would like to share some memories with you. My purpose is to pay tribute to the many men and women who devote their time and compassion in the service of the Lord and his sick and homebound people, especially the elders. In addition, please consider this a recruitment promotion to get more seniors interested in this vital and uniquely special ministry.
After I was trained and commissioned as a Eucharistic minister, I ventured out each Sunday morning on my own to take the Eucharist to God’s special people. For many of the weekly recipients, the weekly visit and reception of the Eucharist was the highlight of their week. I was deeply touched by the joy and enthusiasm we shared. I began to look forward to each visit so I could learn a little more about each of my new friends.
Then it happened.
One of my favorite elderly ladies, Veronica, a petite, enthusiastic 90-year-old Italian, passed away suddenly on a Thursday. We were not notified of her passing so when I went to her room, the shades were drawn and the bed was empty. I asked, “Where is Veronica?” The nurse said simply, “She died on Thursday.”
I was crestfallen. It was my first experience with death in my new role. Veronica had become a friend, and I mourned her loss.
But, death is a reality that Eucharistic ministers have to deal with. Some communicants are elderly, and some are terminally ill. I was never able to totally overcome the loss of one of my newfound friends, but I felt comforted to realize that Veronica, and the others who died on my watch, were in the state of grace and ready to receive their eternal reward.
A ministry of joy
The joy of serving the sick and elderly, and seeing them recover or persevere, and getting to know these remarkable people has allowed me to better understand and appreciate the importance of this vital ministry.
There’s a guideline in some care facilities that the medical staff and caregivers should not get too emotionally close to their patients because some of them will die. I have to disagree. If you can become an instrument of God to brighten their day and bring them the precious Body of Christ, the pain at their passing is more than compensated for by the joy we receive from knowing and loving them and the spiritual gift they receive when we bring them the holy Eucharist.
Every time I visited my friend Jack, he was ready to entertain me with yet another incredible story of his life. I remember one day in particular. It was a beautiful, warm spring morning. The daffodils were blooming. The windows in his sunroom were open. The air was fresh and fragrant. We had long since finished the Communion service, and I was preparing to leave, Jack suddenly motioned me over to his bed and whispered, “Where is Mary (the nurse)?” I looked around and found Mary in the kitchen on the other side of the house.
I reported her location to Jack. He smiled and reached under his bed and pulled out a bottle of fine Irish whiskey. At first I was aghast, and then he whispered, “She doesn’t know I have it. Will you join me in a snap (Jack’s phrase for a shot of whiskey)?” I did join him, and we repeated this routine on numerous future occasions. He looked forward to my visits, and I thoroughly enjoyed every Sunday morning I spent with him.
A month or so later Jack quietly slept away one night, no doubt reliving his many wonderful experiences. I was out of town when Jack died and learned about his passing when one of his daughters called and thanked me for the many months I was able to bring him Communion and sit with him like two old friends sharing our life experiences.
I learned that Mary and his children were very much aware of his “snaps” but allowed him to maintain the illusion of secrecy. It didn’t hurt him, but it sure provided this old Irishman with a motivation to live life to the fullest, right up to the very end.
I miss Jack, but I imagine he’s up in heaven, in the Irish section, sitting next to the Lord with a bottle of fine Irish whiskey tucked away under the folds of an angel’s wings.
There have been other deaths over the years and will be more in the future, but my friend Jack was special. It was nice getting to know you, Jack. Rest in peace, old friend!
If you are searching for a way to fulfill your inner desire to serve God in your retirement years, I urge you to seek out the person in your parish responsible for the Eucharistic ministers to the homebound. I guarantee that it will change your life just as it did mine. Oh, yes, I’m in my 10th year as a Eucharistic minister, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Bill Clarke, former business executive, teacher and senior citizen, emerged from his third retirement to serve as the associate director of professional development for the archdiocesan Office of Formation and Discipleship. To send Bill your thoughts on this and other topics, send an email to email@example.com.