While some can attest to bringing the Word of God to the streets far fewer can say they carry the Body, Soul and Divinity of Christ to those unable to attend Mass.
The Catholic Church is currently observing a “Year of Mercy,” called for by Pope Francis to inspire the church to reach out to the suffering and marginalized. At St. Michael Church in Palmer, however, parishioners have reached to the margins for more than a decade. Administering the Eucharist to bedridden or homebound Catholics has been a parish mainstay. The outreach includes about a dozen parishioners who carry pyxes — small metal containers — between the parish and the homes of the sick or others in want of Holy Communion.
Danielle LaFrance, a longtime parishioner and homebound minister at St. Michael’s, has been involved in the work for 10 years, bringing the Eucharist to parishioners with illnesses and to others who cannot make it to Mass.
“Sometimes it’s a young mother who has just given birth,” LaFrance explained. “But generally, it’s the elderly.”
Age, health and other demographics aside, the homebound ministry provides a bridge to what the Catholic Church teaches is the “source and summit” of the faith — the Eucharist.
Deacon Bill Frost, another homebound minister, who was instrumental in starting the practice years ago, said that before laity were allowed to carry the Body of Christ, the afternoon visits were often added to the busy Sunday workload of priests.
Many of the homebound watch EWTN Catholic television, Deacon Frost said, “and that gives them the Mass, but they’re not getting the Body of Christ.”
That is, until a homebound minister knocks at the door. Training to participate in the ministry includes reading a small blue pamphlet, “Communion of the Sick.” The booklet outlines rites based upon the health of those receiving. In many instances, the homebound are treated to several key parts of the Mass — the Introductory rite, the Liturgy of the Word or other readings in the preamble of the liturgy before receiving Holy Communion. However, when health conditions or fatigue dictate, visiting ministers abbreviate the rites to a simple “Our Father” before delivering Communion.
“But it’s good to set the atmosphere,” LaFrance emphasized, “to have a white cloth to put on a table, and a candle.”
Still, even that is not always an option, said Judy Lewis, another homebound minister from St. Michael’s.
“I try to make it special,” she said. “But sometimes you’ve got to make do with what you’ve got.” And in some instances where the homebound person is in very poor health, ministers may break the host into tiny pieces so that it may be ingested, she explained.
While the homebound ministers bring the Eucharist to all who make the request, the visits require meeting the recipients on their own terms. It’s wise to call ahead of a visit, the ministers note, and logistics of a visit can include negotiating icy driveways, yapping dogs and other obstacles. Inside the home, however, an underlying protocol of reverence applies.
Lewis said she often carries her pyxes in leather pouches around her neck so that they are close to her heart as she makes haste from Holy Mass to visit two women in their houses each Sunday.
“It has to be done with respect,” she said. “It needs to be stressed that this is the Body of Christ. You really have to believe that.”
Deacon Frost has found through the years that those who request a visit embody that firm belief.
“They’re sincere and devout in their faith,” he said. “They’re passionate.”
“This one woman would cry, ‘You brought me Jesus,’“ Lewis recalled.
By all accounts the homebound are also deeply appreciative of the visits, and often ask the visitors to linger and catch up on news and fellowship.
All of the ministers say that the act of delivering the Eucharist has profound effects on them as well.
“It’s a very touching experience for me, bringing the Body of Christ,” LaFrance said. “What could be more special than that?”
LaFrance, Deacon Frost and Lewis describe a feeling of humility and joy.
“It’s just that you realize you are very humbled,” Lewis said. “And I say, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for the opportunity to bring you to other people.”’