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The importance of a priest ‘knocking on a few doors’

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

By on Monday, 30 July 2012

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.

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?

  • la catholic state

    I think even seeing a priest in the street can make a difference.  I was once going home on a bus looking down at all the ‘godless’ tourists….and then I saw a distinguished looking man in a priest’s collar walking among them….and immediately I thought….God is still with us and my spirits were lifted.

    I think we need to see more and more priests, nuns and monks walking among us….and bringing Christ to the ‘godless’ masses again.

  • Jeannine

    I whole-heartedly agree. When in public, priests should wear their collars & sisters & brothers should wear their religious habits. It actually keeps the people,Catholic or not, in the immediate area civilized, i.e., less crass actions if not actually eliminated. (I suspect it’s the same way for other religions whose leaders sport a unique dress.)
    I have been told that more times than not, curious non-Catholics & lapsed Catholics engage priests wearing the collar in friendly conversations about something Catholic.
    Seems to me that collars & religious habits are great evangelistic tools.

  • Jeannine

    ” I wonder if there is anyone reading this who can tell us whether the priest calling actually made a difference?”

    You bet! I can give many examples throughout my life of priests calling my parents’  home, my home or a neighbor’s. Their presence at these homes reinforced the idea that these men are kind, human, & worthy of respect.

  • Henrick_Maundey-666

    I’ve come to take you to a church service, said the large Catholic priest with a scythe.

  • Phillp

    My parish priest came to visit me, listening to him spout his homegrown theology and being able to question him about it, told me it was time to move parishes!

  • theroadmaster

    The present reality of falling numbers in terms of vocations and mass attendance, and the increasing administrative burdens which many priests have to tackle in relation to the day to day running of parish life, militate against the pastoral “knock on the door” routine.  The parish priest can be caught up in a welter of bureaucratic red-tape and committee meetings which should be logically delegated to suitably qualified lay-people to administer and sort out.   Thus by doing this, he can realize the vocational objectives of his priesthood in both a sacramental and pastoral sense, which should include that friendly “knock on the door”.

  • Pebbles

    Oh my goodness when you look at tourists you consider them godless people? Then you saw a priest’s collar and saw God! God is in those people you dismissed!!

  • Agent Provocateur21

     It’s an offer you can’t refuse….

  • Honeybadger

    Does he wear a hooded cloak and sing ‘Stupid Deaths…’ ?

    I wouldn’t depend on you in an ID parade!

    You are one Looney Toons!

  • Patrickhowes

    Well done Father!You are absolutely right.Our parish priest is a permanent fixture at the lunch table.He at first asked us why and my 8 year old son told him,”Well we go to yours,so you should come to ours!!.Ever the diplomat…Of course it also helps to make Catholic schools less secular and is also a process in reestablishing the high regard in which Catholic religious used to be held.

    Keep it up Don Alessandro,your pews will be full to the brim!

  • Patrickhowes

    Fair point!

  • Patrickhowes

    We don´t do Church service,we attend Holy Mass!

  • Seán

    Excellent post. Thank you Father. A marvellous and encouraging article.

  • la catholic state

    I can’t judge people’s souls….but I could see no evidence that the people before me were a people who had not forgotten God.  And I was glad to see this tide of indifference before God, broken by a man of God. 

  • Amy34

    Living in a country where few priests even wear clerics anymore, especially out in public, I ran into my priest once at the market.  He was dressed in full clerical garb- collar, cassock, and fascia.  I was quite moved by his public witness.