I’ve had a couple of conversations recently in which I learned that someone was ill, contacted their loved ones, offered to visit, and was told, “Oh, if you came to visit, s/he would think s/he was dying!”
This is a common misconception, going back to the days when it was considered essential to fetch a priest to a dying person’s bedside to administer the last rites and make sure their soul didn’t end up in hell. And I am, absolutely, always available to visit those who are, in fact, in their last hours or days – it is a great honour to be a witness to those sacred moments, and the prayers for the dying are a powerful and meaningful ritual.
However, just because I’m a priest and visiting someone in the hospital does not mean that they’re never going to come out alive! I visit people in all kinds of circumstances – with new babies, kids with the flu, before or after surgery, in times of grief or depression, when they’re chronically ill, disabled and/or shut-in, and any other imaginable situation where my presence is requested.
One of our callings, as Christians in general and as a congregation in particular, is to accompany each other in our joys and sorrows, at all times in our lives. Of course, I’m not the only one who can do this, and it’s a joy to share this ministry with our many faithful pastoral visitors who ensure that we stay in touch with our oldest and frailest members – including visiting some of them in the hospital when a visit from me would be taken as an indication of imminent doom.
But I hate to miss the opportunity to bring the full presence of Christ and the prayers of the community to people who are ill, because of a misconception. So please know – and explain to others! – that just because someone with a collar is visiting you in the hospital does not mean that there’s something to doctors aren’t telling you. It just means that I want to see you, chat if you’re up for it, offer communion, and hope to provide some comfort and support in your time of need.
And even if you are believed to be dying, and I come and say the prayers for that occasion, who knows – it’s been known to happen that people receive “last rites” more than once, because the medical people were wrong and they got better after all!