The Ministry of the Eucharistic Visitor
By Ann Kasun
Posted July 28, 2013
So what exactly is a Eucharistic Visitor? Is this just another one of the changes taking place at Christ Church? Aren’t you doing what the priest is supposed to do? Why do you want to go to the hospital and play church? These are just some of the questions I’ve been asked since the Sunday morning that the Rev. Cantrell first sent me on your behalf to bring the Eucharist to absent members of our church family. When Julius and Julia offered me the opportunity to write this article and answer some of those questions, I jumped at the chance.
Eucharistic Visitors, while new to us at Christ Church, have been working in other parishes and dioceses for quite some time and came into being in the modern church at the 1985 General Convention. In the years since then, the Spirit has led modifications to the canons which have more clearly and precisely defined the aspects of ministry available to those who are not ordained. The Spirit has led us to understand we are all called to ministry; indeed, it is the normal way of life for all Christians.
One of the ministries I have been called to is the ministry of Eucharistic Visitor, which I do not see as a brand new ministry but rather as a ministry that actually has its roots in the early church where it was common for lay Christians to bring bread and wine to other Christians who were sick or infirm. As the church grew and became more formally structured this happened less often and by the Middle Ages it had largely fallen out of practice for several reasons that were historically significant but do not apply in today’s church. Eucharistic Visitors combine two ministries of the church, pastoral and sacramental. We offer those we visit spiritual and emotional support on behalf of our faith community and we bring them the sacraments of the bread and the wine.
Celebrating the Eucharist is at the very heart of our Christian worship. It not only reminds us of the sacrifice of the cross but also ties our present to the promise of eternal life. The words “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” remind us of our connection not only to our immediate spiritual community, Christ Church, but also that we are connected to all members of the body that is the church: past, present, and future. The prayer the priest offers at consecration expresses that unity even more clearly: “Grant, we beseech thee, that we, and all others, who be partakers of this Holy Communion, may … be … made one body with him, that he may dwell in us and we in him.” As a community, we are held together and nourished by our celebration of the Eucharistic meal. Eucharistic Visitors bring that community to those members who are not able to attend the community gathering. Our presence reminds those we visit of that connection and that they are valued members of our community, that their community misses them.
Do I think my ministry as a Eucharistic Visitor conflicts with the ministries of the ordained members of our community? I do not and more importantly, I do not believe Bishop Benhase would license Eucharistic Visitors if he believed there was a conflict.In “A Manual for Eucharistic Visitors” Beth Wickenberg Ely writes: “It is clear that EVs do not usurp the clergy’s ministry of visitation but provide a way to include the ill and infirm members of the congregation in the celebration of the Eucharist. That is the basic principle behind the ministry of Eucharistic Visitors — to make the Eucharist widely available.” So rather than being in conflict with the ordained members of the community, Eucharistic Visitors work closely with clergy, sharing the observations made during our visits and, with the permission of the parishioners we visit, sharing confidences we have learned that will allow the clergy to more completely meet the parishioners’ spiritual needs.
So what actually happens on a visit? I leave the church with the Eucharistic Visitor’s kit, which contains: a chalice, a paten, two cruets (one for water, and the other for the consecrated wine), a purificator (the small towel for wiping the chalice), a corporal (a square of white linen to go under the chalice and paten), and a pyx (a box containing the consecrated hosts). I also take a bulletin, and a copy of the service we will use. When I arrive, I spend several minutes talking to the person I am visiting, learning about their concerns, and explaining the service. Once they are comfortable I set up the contents of the kit and begin establishing the sacred space we will use for the service. We pray the collect, read the Gospel, discuss the sermon that was presented in church and then confess our sins. After the Lord’s Prayer, I administer communion. Family members and any guests present may also receive communion at this time. We complete the service with a closing prayer and then we visit for a short time, once again extending the care and concern of the community we represent. Afterwards the kit is returned to the church and I record my visit in the parish registry.
When I work with seniors and their families in my business, helping them face and manage the challenges aging provides, one of the things I teach first is the importance of self-care, especially for those in care giving situations. You can only be fully present for another human being when you have first met your own needs. For a Eucharistic Visitor, this means paying attention to your own spiritual life. While I believe having a rich spiritual life positions us to “hear” our calling to this ministry, the Diocese of Georgia helps us to stay on track by making it clear that licensed Eucharistic Visitors are expected to make a commitment to a Rule of Life, which includes daily prayer, receiving communion weekly, reading scripture and responsible stewardship. We are encouraged to keep a journal of our experiences and examine our visits for the lessons they provide for our own spiritual life and to discuss those lessons regularly with our spiritual advisor.
I find great joy in this work. It is such a privilege to bring the spiritual and emotional healing the Eucharist provides to those member of our community who are not able to attend our community service due to sickness or infirmity. Seeing the joy in their eyes when they realize we recognize them as fellow members of the Body, have noticed their absence, are concerned about them, and desire to include them in our worship and celebration is a gift I treasure and a very strong reminder of our responsibility to love one another.
Note: I relied heavily on “A Manual for Eucharistic Visitors” by Beth Wickenberg Ely in the writing of this article. ALK