Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York is blessed with a great number of faithful and dedicated people who bring Holy Communion to patients and their families in the hospitals we serve. Their ministry to the sick and their loved ones is an exemplary work of charity. We are also blessed with a team of Dominican friars devoted to providing spiritual care and ethical guidance to patients, their families, and to the entire health care community. I am blessed to be one of several friars who are both Catholic priests and hospital chaplains. Our ministry to the patients and their families in the hospitals includes pastoral visits, prayer, and the administration of Holy Communion. It also includes administering the sacraments of the Anointing of the Sick and Confession.
The spiritual care of the sick and their families requires that all of us, both priests and laity, be faithful and generous in the exercise of our ministries. It also requires that we work together, especially in the exercise of our sacramental ministries and particularly in the administration of the sacraments of Holy Communion and Confession.
Our extraordinary lay ministers offer the sacrament of Holy Communion frequently, even daily, to the patients in the hospitals we serve. Frequent Communion is important for the spiritual care of the sick for the same reasons it is important for all Catholic Christians. The Eucharist is the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11). In the words of our Lord, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:57). Because of this saving benefit of receiving our Lord in Holy Communion, the Church recommends that we receive frequently. Though Catholics are obliged to receive Holy Communion only once a year, preferably at Easter, “the Church strongly encourages the faithful to receive the holy Eucharist on Sundays and feast days, or more often still, even daily” (CCC 1389).
The availability of frequent communion for the sick is also important for reasons particular to their condition. The Communion Rite in the officially approved Pastoral Care of the Sick includes the prayer: “All-powerful and ever-living God, may the body and blood of Christ your Son be for our brother/sister a lasting remedy for body and soul.” The Eucharist is a remedy for the sick person in several ways. It is a remedy for the anguish of suffering, bestowing Christ’s healing grace and more fully uniting the suffering Christian with the suffering Christ. It is a remedy for the feeling of separation from the Church, connecting the sick person to the celebration of the Eucharist and to the Mystical Body of Christ. Finally, receiving Holy Communion is remedy for sin. Christ gives us in the Eucharist the blood he “shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28). “For this reason,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins” (CCC 1393). For the sick who are nourished with the Eucharist, healing from illness can be accompanied by healing from sin. For the dying, the Eucharist as viaticum becomes food for their journey to the life that is beyond sickness, sin, and death.
Receiving Holy Communion is not, however, a remedy for every kind of sin. According to the Catechism, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” (CCC 1385). Receiving the Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is a sacred and privileged event for which we must be prepared. We should heed St. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
For those of us who see to the spiritual care of the sick, it is important that we make Holy Communion frequently available for the sick persons who, according to the strong encouragement of the Church, wish to receive the Eucharist often. It is also important that those of us who bring Holy Communion to the sick recognize the importance of the sacrament of Confession. The spiritual life of a sick person can be greatly enriched when he or she is given the opportunity to take advantage of the sacrament of Confession before receiving Holy Communion.
In some places, hospitalized patients and their families may not be able to receive Holy Communion frequently or have access to priests who are available to hear their confessions. In the hospitals served by Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry of New York, patients and their families have the benefit of many wonderful extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion as well as several priests devoted to their spiritual care. We care for them most effectively when we work together, offering frequent Communion and making Confession readily available