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Carrying Christ to the sick, suffering

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Bill York lightly touched the leather pouch hanging around his neck before knocking on the door of a modest brick home in Alexandria. Moments later he gave a bear hug to Rosemary Kemp, 87. The living room was filled with family portraits, religious art and a framed photo of nearby St. Joseph Church, where both York and Kemp are longtime parishioners.

York was there to bring Kemp, who has chronic back and leg problems, the sacred contents of the small pouch - a consecrated host.

The heart of the Catholic faith is the Eucharist, and many extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, like York, are arms that extend outward, drawing the sick and suffering toward that life-giving heart. Each week across the diocese, men and women carry their precious cargo to quiet neighborhoods and busy nursing homes, fulfilling a ministry that is challenging, but that offers blessings to the bearers of Christ and to the infirm.

"Each visit is falling in love with God through a greater awareness of His love for us," said Rosemary Locke, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion from St. Agnes Church in Arlington. "The intensity of the love God has for these people and the graces they bring to us - it's a gift."

Difficult and beautiful

Locke has been an extraordinary minister of holy Communion for about 10 years and takes the Blessed Sacrament to residents of Cherrydale Health and Rehabilitation Center in Arlington, which offers physical therapy and nursing care. With her team of about eight St. Agnes parishioners, she distributes the Eucharist weekly to as many as 55 residents.

Locke said challenges include creating a reverent atmosphere to offer the sacrament and ministering to Catholics with varying backgrounds.

"People come in with Catholicism that's all over place," said Locke. "Some are cradle Catholics with great formation, some have a limited understanding, and some have fallen away."

It also can be difficult to track down Catholics scattered throughout the facility; they may be in physical therapy, watching TV or roaming the halls.

"You have to really be thinking on your feet," Locke said. "I'm constantly saying to the Holy Spirit, 'I'm depending on You to steer me and to give me the grace and words I need to reach this individual, to create a sacred place … and to nourish them so that they can continue to carry their cross with joy or comfort or whatever they need at that specific moment.'"

The ministry is not for everyone, said Roberta Goldblatt, also a parishioner of St. Agnes, who has brought Communion to the parish's homebound for decades. "Some people find it overwhelming to walk into homes and sometimes find a tremendous amount of suffering," she said.

Goldblatt sees herself as a bit like the donkey that carried Mary and the unborn Jesus. "Leaving Mass with the pyx (a small round receptacle used to carry the Eucharist), I feel like the humble little burro," she said.

While the majority of the homebound are elderly, there are many reasons parishioners cannot receive the Eucharist at Mass. Some are recovering from surgery or chemotherapy. Others are pregnant mothers on bed rest.

Many return to full health, but being present to the dying is part of the ministry. "Over the years I can recall each person who has passed away," said Goldblatt. "They are like family and it's difficult, but it's beautiful nonetheless."

"If you look at it with human eyes, you see sadness," said Locke. "But the beauty of our faith is the communion of saints. You are joined with them in this communion, so you are turning them over to God for all eternity. Of course you're going to miss them, but you cherish the privilege of helping prepare them for that final call."

Locke said some individuals who are physically unable to consume the host may receive a "spiritual Communion," which is the desire to receive the body of Christ coupled with being properly disposed, or free from mortal sin. Although not a sacrament itself, "someone who makes a spiritual Communion receives the effects/grace of the sacrament," said Father Paul F. deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy.

Locke said she's glimpsed the outward expression of that grace. "The joy that comes over the face of those who receive (a spiritual Communion) is just breathtaking."

A lifeline

York - who is head sacristan at St. Joseph and makes Communion visits with Josephite Father Donald M. Fest, pastor - said there is much to learn from the dying.

"We talk all the time about how to live, but when you visit and sit with these people, you learn how to die."

You also bring your own life experience, as well as Christ, with you through their front door, and it creates a powerful bond, he said.

After his wife died of cancer four years ago, it helped him relate to those who had lost, or were in the process of losing, a spouse. "You're sharing a journey," he said.

York feels the ministry encompasses caregivers, who are often family members, as well as the sick. "Ours is a ministry of love, and they are in a ministry of love, … it is something you share with them," he said.

Gwendolyn Day Fuller was a longtime caregiver for her father, Ferdinand Day, an influential figure in Alexandria and the first African-American on the city's school board. Baptized at St. Joseph, he was a parishioner for nearly a century. When he could no longer attend his beloved parish, he received Communion at home.

The weekly visits meant a great deal to Day, who died early this year, as well as to Fuller.

"His face lit up when he knew they were coming," said Fuller. "The reverence he had (for) the Eucharist - it was such a joy and a pleasure to see."

Kemp, sitting in her Alexandria home, prayerfully consumed the Eucharist before sharing her own gratitude for the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion.

Receiving the weekly visits and the body of Christ "means an awful lot to me; it means my life," she said.

Along with the sacrament, the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion bring her the parish bulletin and the latest parish news. "It helps me stay connected to the church family. It's a lifeline," said Kemp.

And the members of the church family who take the Blessed Sacrament to the suffering and sick receive abundant blessings in return.

"When we enter people's homes, we are entering a private, sensitive, intimate place … that we must approach with dignity and sincerity," said York, as he drove away from Kemp's home. And if you're open to it, he said, "you will receive a lot more than you could ever imagine."

More on the ministry

Appointing lay faithful as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion was permitted following Vatican II, according to Fr. Paul F. deLadurantaye, diocesan secretary for religious education and sacred liturgy. Extraordinary ministers of holy Communion are used to distribute the Eucharist to the sick when the ministry cannot be performed solely by local bishops, priests and deacons.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015