Bringing Christ to the sick Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Kat Wagner, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010 -- 1:00 AM

MADISON -- One of the corporal works of mercy — part of the Catholic teaching of the virtues of showing compassion for and alleviating the misfortune of others — is to visit the sick.

How to get involved

The team of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion for UW Hospitals and Clinics is looking for new members. Team members receive training and safety checks from the Diocese of Madison and UW Hospitals and Clinics.

For more information, contact:

Deacon Joe Stafford, 608-712-7066

Spiritual Care Services, 608-263-8574

Volunteer Services, 608-263-6046

or visit:

In a setting where there can be stress, pain, and grief, the healing power of the Eucharist is a God-send. In a secular hospital, the sacraments can bring with their grace the reminder of God’s presence and a spiritual healing that cannot be achieved through medicine.

For more than a decade, an evolving team of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion have been bringing Christ to the sick through a program held in cooperation with UW Hospital in Madison. The volunteers, who are specially trained for this task, work as an extension of the two Catholic chaplains — Fr. Diego Cuevas and Deacon Joe Stafford — and the UW Hospital and Clinics Spiritual Care Services office.

“There is a great recognition that there is a lot beyond the clinical side” of the hospital stay, said Michael Rosenblum, volunteer services manager at UW Hospital and Clinics. “There is a broad spiritual side of it, too.”

Bringing spiritual healing

The Spiritual Care Services office boasts a team of chaplains that includes representatives of various denominations, but there are elements of the Catholic faith that cannot be performed by a non-Catholic. In particular, the sacraments can only be performed by clergy and Communion can only be given by and to a Catholic.

The number of Catholic patients in the hospital can vary widely on a daily basis. On one day in November, for instance, there were only 65 patients who identified themselves as Catholic during check-in, but Deacon Stafford said that number has been as high as 130 on some days. Rosenblum said the hospital sees about 500 patients daily who stay for varying number of days.

With Catholic clergy as chaplains, Catholic patients can receive the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick from Father Cuevas, and even Baptism, Confirmation, Viaticum (the Eucharist as part of last rites), or Anointing of the Sick in emergencies. Mass is held at the hospital daily except for Fridays, but for patients who cannot get to the chapel, the Eucharist can come to them.

Extraordinary ministry

Currently, there are five active extraordinary ministers at UW Hospital and Clinics, most of whom are also trained as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at their own parishes and a few who also visit other hospitals in the Madison area. Several of them were brought into the ministry through Bob and Pat Clark, who started bringing Communion to patients in the Madison-area hospitals about 15 years ago.

On their visiting day, the extraordinary ministers receive a list of the patients to visit who would like Communion. With the reserved Blessed Sacrament brought from their home parish, the extraordinary ministers say the appropriate prayers and present the Eucharist to those patients properly disposed and able to receive, as well as family or friends who are present and wish to receive.

Sometimes, the patients are fasting or cannot swallow, or can only receive a small piece of the consecrated host.

“If they can’t receive, I ask them if they want a prayer,” said Wayne Hunt, a parishioner at St. Peter Parish in Madison and an extraordinary minister at the hospital for close to five years. “Just the presence of the Body of Christ will bring them healing and hope.”

The role of the extraordinary minister is small, in a way: they are there solely to be bearers of the Eucharist.

“Each of us recognizes what our role is, and the limitations,” said Hunt. “We don’t go to offer counseling. We don’t try to discern where they are — but if they need a chaplain, we’ll ask them if they want a further visit.”

But even with such a limited role, the experience can be moving. “You get feedback from a lot of the people,” said Ed Kolb, a parishioner at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Madison and extraordinary minister for more than 10 years. “When you bring them Christ and they start crying, you know it is affecting them. It affects you, too.”

Bearing the miracle of Christ

The extraordinary ministers have collected many little miracle stories — the patient who could not keep anything down until she was given the Eucharist; the patients who have come back to the Church after their stays at the hospital; the moments of hope amid sorrow. But there are also stories of the patients who will soon return to God and who are at the hospital for the last time.

Does it discourage them? No, they said.

“It energizes, more,” said Hunt. “There was a patient waiting for a liver transplant, and I came to give Communion. Next time, he could not receive, and a short time later he passed a way. But it’s not discouraging. There’s a sense that you were able to give that patient hope. You can give them some hope, something to hang onto at that moment. It’s part of the journey for us as Christians. I feel blessed to have been there at that time.”

Their work, said Annette Kesow, a parishioner at St. Mary of the Nativity Parish in Marshall and an extraordinary minister at the hospital for more than 10 years, is a very sacred mission.

“It is a time of Grace for us,” added Fred Johnson, a parishioner at St. James Parish in Madison and extraordinary minister at UW Hospital for more than ten years. “It enhances our Christian life immensely.”

To do that work, the extraordinary ministers say that they continually form themselves through prayer and the sacraments. Several of them mentioned attending Mass daily and going to Eucharistic Adoration.

Kesow said that she had a spiritual director who helped her to focus on her mission. “He said that if I was going to work in lay ministry, I would have to be a person that would distinguish myself in my Christian life through my faith and my morals,” she said. “And what I do is try to cultivate the devotion to the Holy Eucharist and act as an example to the other faithful by my sanctity and prayer.”

“We’ve spoken of the Real Presence, and I always try to remember that,” said Johnson. “There’s three of us in the room, and I try to convey that to them.”

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