Pittsburgh churches

Faith Forum: ministry of presence

Faith Forum: Father Charles Bober answers questions from parishioners

1. My grandmother was near death and we needed a priest. It was a Saturday afternoon, but why was it so difficult for one of them to arrive on time?

2. My sister died and after the funeral mass, the priest could not accompany us to the cemetery. Why was that?

The above questions have two important contexts; basically the way it was in the Church and the way it is today. At the beginning of the 20e century, many Catholics came from Europe and established parishes similar to those of the homeland they left. In most places in Europe, parishes have been established on the “village model”. Each village had a church, with a priest who lived and worked there.

Sacraments and rituals were celebrated around this model. Funerals, for example, involved the priest leading the body of the family home to the church where the funeral mass was held, and then the priest leading the people of the church to the adjacent cemetery for burial. Immigrants brought this tradition with them to the United States.

This model existed at the end of the last century. But now it has radically changed. Priests are no longer abundant in number. They are scattered over large areas and are often responsible for several parishes or churches. The above questions are often asked as if the village model still exists.

In this context, let us therefore approach the question concerning the person near death, whose family requests the sacrament of anointing of the sick. This sacrament is best sought after when a person begins the journey through illness. However, as the person is near death, it is not always possible for a priest to be there especially on a Saturday afternoon when there are weddings, parish activities and evening masses.

But while the presence of a priest and the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick are important, it is not the only prayer experience that can take place at this time. There are various prayers for praise of the dying. These prayers may be the ones that are most familiar to the dying person. They ask the Lord to bring the soul of a loved one into eternal life. These prayers said in the familiar voice of a loved one can bring such peace to a dying person.

However, sometimes a sick person may ask someone to pray with them, only to hear Catholic family members say, “I am going to call a priest. For some reason, perhaps rooted in the village model of parishes and priests, we believe that only one priest can say prayers.

This is also true for the burial in the cemetery after the funeral mass. Priests are often asked to accompany the deceased and his family on a long drive to say a short prayer. In the village model, the family home, church and cemetery were all within walking distance, but this is no longer so today. The prudent use of time is the only way for priests to accomplish the multiple tasks expected of them over ever greater distances between the parishes or churches for which they are responsible.

photo by Dena Koenig Photography

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