February 12, 2010

‘God is right there with you’: Caring spirit guides extraordinary ministers of holy Communion as they serve hospital patients

As an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, Gene Caviston brings Communion to hospital patients and staff members at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis. Here, Caviston offers a prayer before giving Communion to two nurses in the hospital’s labor and delivery unit, Amelia Titsworth, left, and Lisa Bauer. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, Gene Caviston brings Communion to hospital patients and staff members at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis. Here, Caviston offers a prayer before giving Communion to two nurses in the hospital’s labor and delivery unit, Amelia Titsworth, left, and Lisa Bauer. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The temptation is always there for Robert McNamara.

It stays with him as he travels from floor to floor through the hospital, giving Communion to as many as 50 people in a day.

In his volunteer role as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion for hospital patients, McNamara is often tempted to be in a hurry, to end his visits as quickly as possible, so he can get on with the demands and wishes of his own life.

And yet one moment reminds McNamara of how crucial it can be to resist that temptation. It’s a moment that typifies the caring spirit that guides hundreds of Communion ministers across the archdiocese who bring the Eucharist to people in hospitals and nursing homes.

The moment started when McNamara walked into a patient’s room at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis

one day. After they prayed together and talked for a short while, the patient told McNamara that he needed to see a priest. Their conversation also left the impression with McNamara that the man had been away from the Church for a while.

There wasn’t a priest in the hospital during that time, but McNamara noticed the man’s address and realized it was located in the same parish as his—St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. So after he left the patient’s room, McNamara asked a secretary in the hospital’s chaplain office to contact the parish to see if a priest could visit the man.

McNamara’s involvement could have ended there, but the next day he remembered the touch of desperation in the man’s voice. He decided to visit the parish office to follow up on his request. The parish secretary told him that a priest had gone to the hospital to visit the man, but the patient had already been released to go home.

Still, the situation gnawed at McNamara. He checked the man’s address in a phone book and drove there.

“I went up and knocked on his door,” McNamara recalls. “He answered, and I asked if he remembered me. He did, and I told him I wanted to see if he was still interested in seeing a priest. He said he was. I went back to the secretary and told her that.”

Two days later, McNamara was looking through the obituary section of the daily newspaper when he saw the patient’s name.

“His funeral was in the chapel at St. Luke’s,” McNamara recalls. “I wanted to go. When I walked in, there were about 10 people there. I asked someone where the man’s wife was. I went up and introduced myself and told her why I wanted to be there for the service. She stared at me, paused and said, ‘Oh, you’re the one.’

“She told me that after I came by, a priest came to their house shortly after that. She said he was such a changed man after the priest’s visit. Then his sister came up to me. She was a nun. She said to me, ‘I want to meet the angel that God sent.’ The family was so grateful that their husband and brother had been seen by a priest. It was a very moving experience for me. It still is.”

McNamara pauses for a moment.

“I feel strongly that it was directed by God,” he continues. “When you’re calling on 25 to 50 people at a time, you’re tempted to be in a hurry. But as a minister, you tell yourself that you’re the connecting link here, so don’t shortchange God. My prayer is to be as good a representative as if Jesus were doing it.”

‘It’s just a heartwarming experience’

That approach also guides the extraordinary minister of holy Communion ministers from the Richmond Catholic Community who visit Catholic patients at Reid Memorial Hospital in Richmond.

“We have so many eucharistic ministers who care,” says Kathy Kutter, who coordinates the Communion ministry efforts of the three parishes that form the Richmond Catholic Community—Holy Family, St. Andrew and St. Mary.

“They take time with the people,” Kutter says about the 86 volunteers she coordinates. “They will talk to them and ask if there’s anything the Church can do for them. It’s just a tremendous outreach to our Catholic community. It’s the Church coming to them.”

Gwen Schroeder knows the importance of those visits.

“Years ago, my grandparents were in a nursing home and I got to see how much it meant to them when someone from the Church came by to give Communion,” says Schroeder, explaining why she became a Communion minister at St. Andrew Parish in Richmond. “In the last two years, when my parents were in the hospital, I got to take Communion to them. It’s just a heartwarming experience to help people.”

That attitude of reaching out to Catholics in hospitals is shared by members of the six Catholic parishes in Terre Haute: Sacred Heart of Jesus, St. Ann, St. Benedict, St. Joseph University, St. Margaret Mary and St. Patrick.

“Between them, the parishes try to bring Communion every day of the week to Catholics who are in the hospital,” says Betty Kapellusch, who directs the ministry to the sick and the shut-ins at St. Patrick Parish in Terre Haute.

“It’s been very successful,” she continues. “I couldn’t begin to tell you how rewarding it is and how much the people in the hospital appreciate it. To be in the hospital and receive Communion is such a gift.”

‘God is right there with you’

Gene Caviston follows that philosophy as he rides the elevator from floor to floor to bring Communion to patients and health care staff at St. Francis Hospital in Indianapolis.

Caviston’s first stops are often in the post-partum unit and the neo-natal intensive care unit for premature babies. The 79-year-old great-grandfather takes time to talk with the stressed parents, sharing lighthearted stories from his parenting days that elicit a smile or a laugh. He also distributes Communion with the same healing approach. Health care workers view his arrival as a blessed part of their work day.

“I can’t get through my work day without it,” says Amelia Titsworth, a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood and a registered nurse in the labor and delivery unit at the hospital. “A lot of times, we can’t get away for Mass so this is a blessing for us. If I have a Catholic patient, a lot of times I’ll receive Communion with them.”

After he prays with and gives Communion to Titsworth and two other nurses on the unit, Caviston rides the elevator to the critical care unit to offer Communion to two elderly patients.

“I once gave Communion to a woman and had a nice conversation with her,” recalls Caviston, a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood. “When I left the room and got to the elevator, I heard a code blue—an announcement for a cardiac arrest—for her room. I went back and they were trying to resuscitate her, but they weren’t successful. I still felt good because I had been able to give her Communion before she died.”

As he makes his rounds through the hospital, Caviston shares a sentiment that is common among Communion ministers.

“This helps me in my religion,” says the retired police officer. “I consider it a rare privilege to be allowed to do this. Years ago, no one other than a priest could touch the Eucharist with their hands. To be commissioned to do this is a privilege.”

Eleanor McNamara knows that feeling, too. For the past 15 years, she has joined her husband, Robert, in distributing Communion to patients at Methodist Hospital.

“Sometimes, I’ll check on people in their room a second time, if I missed them the first time,” she says. “That’s what I was on my way to do when a doctor stopped me in the hall once. He said there was a man here in the intensive care unit who had just been baptized the day before. He said that the man wanted to go to Communion again. His son and his daughter-in-law were with him. I felt God had directed me there.

“It’s just amazing. You get to share your beliefs with them and give them the holy sacrament. It’s a wonderful privilege. You know that God is right there with you, leading you.” †

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