I’m sitting at a workshop, flipping through the workbook and only half listening to the presenter. Then I hear her say, “Jesus is standing at the front of this room, he’s pointing to you. He’s saying, ‘I choose you!’” I look up shocked. The presenter is relating a vision her husband (in another province) had the night before. It sounds like merely an anecdote except that I was wondering at that moment if any of the challenging material we were covering was even applicable to a conscripted Eucharistic Minister like me. According to the presenter, it was not by chance or curiosity that I was here. I was called by Jesus himself. I sit up straighter and listen more attentively.
This June, as we contemplate the Sacred Heart of Jesus, it’s fitting to also contemplate how we might be called to love more like Jesus does. In his writing about devotion to the Sacred Heart, Bishop Donald J. Hying says, “If love means willing the good of the other, completely free of self-interest, we see the perfection of such charity in the burning heart of Christ. Lest we think such a love is naïve, simplistic or easy, the Sacred Heart shines forth, crowned with thorns, pierced and bleeding.”
These twin aspects of Jesus’s love for us – personal and sacrificial – are mirrored in Pastoral Care ministry. Pastoral journeying involves face-to-face, focused attention on another person. This type of love goes much deeper than good deeds. It touches people’s broken hearts and has the potential to break open our hearts in the process. That’s why pastoral care ministry requires plenty of prayer and proper training.
Recently, the Calgary diocese held a pastoral care training session facilitated by Virginia Battiste (MTS). The workshop spanned four days, over two weekends, and included topics like Pastoral Care Listening, Caring for the Aging, Grief and Loss, End of Life Care and Self Care for the Caregiver. Pastoral care is defined as offering consolation and support to a person experiencing loss or stress. This could include bereavement ministry, hospital visiting and palliative accompaniment, among others things.
I attended the session via Zoom at St. Martha Church in Lethbridge. There were about a dozen attendees from all over southern Alberta so we were able to have small-group discussions in addition to listening to the presenter from Calgary. As an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion who takes Communion to a long term care facility, I wasn’t sure if the workshop would be applicable to me. Indeed, the first module contrasted “parish care” (which includes taking the Eucharist to shut-ins) with “pastoral care”.
Parish care is practical and often social. It might involve sharing cards, meals, rides or phone calls. It focuses on doing. Pastoral care focuses on being. It involves one-to-one listening with people who are ill, hospitalized, dying, recently bereaved or generally feeling lost and isolated. It’s all about the other person, never oneself. So though Eucharistic ministry is primarily pragmatic, it sometimes involves individuals who are sick or sad. To that extent, Eucharistic ministry can become pastoral, so Virginia Battiste’s presentation helped me to prepare for that possibility.
What does it mean to provide pastoral care?
It is about offering consolation and support in whatever form is appropriate to the other person at their time of need. It means being present, listening, trying to understand and empathize, without preaching or counselling. It is a ministry of accompaniment.
How much time does pastoral care take?
Ideally, pastoral care is offered in the context of a relationship, and relationships develop over time. However, listening happens in moments – small opportunities to receive the words which someone needs or wants to share. Often, it’s not about taking more time but about making the most of the time we have.
What are the characteristics of a pastoral caregiver?
This ministry requires patience, compassion, empathy, kindness and understanding. It asks one to be attentive to the cues and needs of the other person, to be flexible, dependable and non-judgmental. Pastoral listeners should be secure in their own identities and aware of both their strengths and their limitations.
If you feel called to pastoral listening, please consider offering your God-given talents through your parish. The need is greater than ever post-Covid. While many of us now have opportunities to share our feelings with a friend face-to-face, the same isn’t true for everyone. Some people don’t wish to ‘burden’ their friends and families with their feelings. Others still feel isolated post-pandemic and haven’t been able to return to in-person or social activities. Now more than ever pastoral outreach is needed to connect with those who feel anxious and marginalized.
Even if we don’t feel able to take on Pastoral Care ministry in all its richness, we might still employ pastoral listening in our daily lives. All around us people who are struggling and simply need to be heard; perhaps that coworker who appears forlorn or that neighbour who lost their beloved pet a month ago or even a downcast family member. We can ask, “How are you doing?” or “Would you like to talk?” and take some uninterrupted time to listen without the need to offer solutions or even affirmations. We can be a reflection of God’s sacrificial love in someone else’s life, a teeny, tiny replica of Jesus’s own Sacred Heart.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers