No one ever forgets a priest who visited the sick, but does 'going out and about' make a difference to non-Massgoers

I remarked to someone the other day that I was just about to go off and “knock on a few doors”, something which is often called pastoral visiting, and which I have also heard laypeople refer to as “the priest going out and about”. The person to whom I mentioned this said they thought that it was a very good idea, and that they wished priests did it more often.

So, what is pastoral visiting, and what does it entail? The whole matter is more complex than you would think.

When I was first ordained I was placed in a large parish in industrial South Wales, where knocking on doors was still considered an important part of priestly ministry. The parish was divided up into areas, and each priest was meant to “cover” his own area. There was a list and each afternoon I went out and knocked on various doors, and visited the families who lived there. The reaction one got was mixed: some people very glad to see me, others less so, a few, though only a few, markedly hostile. As far as I was concerned the purpose of all this was to try and persuade the lapsed to come to Mass – but though I met many lapsed Catholics, I was never convinced that I brought many back to the practice of the faith.

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A decade and a half later, I am still knocking on doors, but in a much less systematic way. There is a list, but there is no street by street approach. One goes to see the sick and the housebound, and those who are bereaved, and those who might, as they say “appreciate a visit” – this last category are usually people who are indicated to you by other parishioners.

Sick visiting remains of the utmost importance. The sick and the housebound have the right of access to their pastors, so they can legitimately expect the priest to call, and the priest is duty-bound to call on them. Moreover, people, Catholics and non-Catholics, do appreciate the fact that the priest visits the sick. I was once in a parish where I did a lot of sick-visiting, and wherever I went I heard of a previous priest there who had been assiduous in visiting the sick and whose memory was greatly cherished. Wherever I went it was “Fr Cathal this, Fr Cathal that…” The odd thing was that Cahal, not his real name, had brought shame and scandal on the Church thanks to a sexual indiscretion; but all that was forgotten and forgiven because he was an outstanding visitor of the sick. No one recalled the reason he got into the papers; but plenty of people said things like: “When my mother was in hospital Fr Cathal went to see her every day.”

Incidentally, Chaucer’s Parson, who is usually thought of as the ideal pastor of souls, is also an assiduous visitor of the sick and troubled:

Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,
But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,
In sickness, or in sin, or any state,
To visit the farthest, regardless their financial state,
Going by foot, and in his hand, a stave.

So, the idea of pastoral visiting as the mark of what people expect of their priest has a long pedigree.

But what about visiting lapsed Catholics? That can be done in a variety of ways which do not necessarily involve house calls, but which can be classed under the title “the priest getting out and about”. One of the best places to meet lapsed members of the flock is of course the local Catholic primary school, where the vast majority of parents will be people who never or hardly ever come to Mass. The same applies, even more so, to the local Catholic secondary school. Thus school visits, and being present at school functions, and standing att he school gate, are the equivalent of many a house visit, and are good opportunities to engage with people.

Then of course there are those other great gathering places of the lapsed, namely funerals and weddings. These offer an invaluable opportunity to meet people who may wish to come to Mass, may be on the verge of coming to Mass, but are not there yet.

But in the end, priests should walk down roads in residential areas and do something very simple, namely talk to people: as they are trimming their hedges, walking their dogs, or whatever. As for the success or otherwise, who knows? I wonder if there is anyone reading this who can tell us whether the priest calling actually made a difference?

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