By Michelle Herberger
In these teaching editorials on evangelization, the authors are presenting information, inspiration and witness about areas of church ministry that provide opportunities and challenges to our mission to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. This editorial reflects on pastoral care as an opportunity for evangelization.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” Isaiah 61:1.
Times of suffering and loss bring to the surface for many people the opportunity to re-evaluate that which is most important in their lives. When one feels life as it has been known is being stripped away, that which is most important is often found in relationships: relationship with God, with self and with others. Consequently, times of suffering and loss are opportunities to evangelize and build relationships that can facilitate hope and healing.
Although suffering and loss are often met with resistance and a multitude of feelings, they are both an ordinary part of living. A common event for us is illness, be it ours or someone’s we love. Illness often separates us from the familiar.
A young woman recently shared her experience of being with her sister who was hospitalized. Though she and her sister were actively practicing their faith, they were keenly aware of their inability in that moment to find their own way into the comfort of their faith.
A person from a parish near the hospital brought communion and offered to pray with them. The young woman spoke of how the church’s presence brought an immediate awareness of God’s compassionate care, drawing her and her sister even more deeply into their relationship with Christ and the Church. They simply needed that personal touch to remind them of their own inner truth.
How do our parishes reach out to our sick, our shut-ins and our people in nursing care facilities? Are we aware of and able to respond to some of the needs of caregivers as well?
Another loss that touches many people deeply is divorce. Recently someone spoke of her divorce experience and of how isolated she felt from her parish. She had been quite active in various liturgical ministries in her parish. As a result of the divorce, she was moving and called to have her name removed from the ministry schedule. She felt as though the person receiving the call simply did not know what to do other than to thank her for the call and consequently, the sense of loss was compounded.
When she decided to go through the annulment process, she was assigned to a deacon and his wife to walk with her through the process. Through their non-judgmental and caring presence, she was again able to feel the love of Christ extended to her through the church.
Severed relationships can be experienced in many other ways, such as loss of employment, fallout from addictions and estrangement from family. Parishes are called to be places where people can share their stories of brokenness. Is there a system of support in your parish for those experiencing life’s losses? If so, how are those resources made known?
Members from various BeFriender Hospital Ministry teams often speak of visiting patients who upon admission to the hospital, self-identify as Catholic. When visiting the patient, however, they often hear stories of estrangement from the church for a period of time and for a variety of reasons. Due to the reflection that often accompanies illness, these individuals are seeking ways to connect again with their faith and their church. How do we as parishes welcome those who have been away? Who hears their stories? Are we willing to “prepare the fatted calf” and welcome them with joy?
In Familiaris Consortio, Blessed John Paul II writes, “The church’s pastoral concern will not be limited only to the Christian families closest at hand; it will extend its horizons in harmony with the heart of Christ … for those families in particular which are in difficult or irregular situations. For all of them the church will have a word of truth, goodness, understanding, hope and deep sympathy with their sometimes tragic situations.”
The opportunities for evangelization are there in pastoral care, and the call has been given. Let us as church witness in hope the love of Christ to those who are suffering.
Michelle Herberger is the Coordinator of Pastoral Care Ministries and Project Rachel in the Office of Family Ministries