By S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Christmas is just around the corner, and while many are filled with joyful anticipation, there are others who view the pending holiday season with dread due to acute loneliness. Catholics around the world and in the Diocese of Lincoln are striving to minister to these lonely people.
The Holy Father has consistently urged Catholics all around the world to notice and care for elderly, ill and other isolated persons in their midst.
In June, during the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis made “human solidarity” his universal intention, urging people to identify those who are marginalized as people who are made in the image and likeness of God.
Catholics need not look very far to find lonely people who could use a little human interaction. At Cathedral of the Risen Christ Parish in Lincoln, a new lay program was launched some months ago to organize efforts to reach them.
“We call them the Missionaries of Mercy,” said Father Justin Fulton, assistant pastor at the Cathedral.
“We have many people in nursing homes or regular homes who just can’t get out,” he said. “A lot of these folks are people who helped build the Cathedral.”
He noted that while these lonely residents frequently have living family members, our culture has become more spread out. Children move away; grandchildren are born in other states. Intentionally or not, the older generation is frequently left to themselves, and they hunger for human interaction.
It’s a chronic problem throughout the world. Not long ago, the New York Times reported that in the United States and the United Kingdom, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone. By age 85, half live alone.
“A lot of these folks think they are a burden on society,” Father Fulton said.
Like so many parish priests, he pays pastoral visits to “around 20” homebound people on First Fridays, hearing confessions and bringing the Blessed Sacrament to them. But he is aware his calls really aren’t enough.
“I want to stay there longer, but the schedule is such I have to get back,” he lamented.
Now with the Missionaries of Mercy, there is a team of volunteers who visit each week, staying a half hour or an hour to chat, share a warm meal, and perhaps leave some spiritual reading materials. This gift of personal time and human interaction is a wonderful remedy for loneliness.
“To me, it’s a pro-life thing,” Father Fulton said. “We have plenty of people in the parish who pray all day, and that’s great, but we can take that out into the world, too.”
Last summer, Cathedral parish lost one of its longtime members to cancer. Rose Nannen, whom Father Fulton called “a mom to everyone,” had been so blessed by visits from the Missionaries of Mercy, she bequeathed a monetary gift to the lay organization to be used to purchase meals and other gifts for the homebound.
The call to reach out to the people who live “on the fringes” of our parishes was a major focus during the Year of Mercy, but it’s something that able-bodied Catholics can and should do all the time.
“We need to recognize we are all part of the human family, and we are responsible for one another,” said Father James Kubicki, national director of the Apostleship of Prayer during an appearance on the Morning Air® radio program earlier this year.
“It may be in our families that there is someone on the margins or who is feeling very lonely,” he continued. “It may be someone in our parish, or it may be children in school who are pushed to the margins—they aren’t invited to be part of the games; there’s nobody sitting with them at the lunch table.”
While attempting to assuage chronic loneliness may feel daunting, Sister Constance Veit, communications director for the Little Sisters of the Poor said that even those who are missing family members who have died or moved away can be helped by a visit from a well-meaning person.
“In a very real way you can never really replace those who are gone, so for most people there’s always going to be an unfilled hole left, so to speak,” she said. “But we do the best we can.”
If an individual, family or group doesn’t have a lonely relative or neighbor to visit, they can consult with their pastor for names and contact information of somebody who lives in the parish.
Another option is to contact a long-term care or assisted living facility to arrange a visit.
Father Joseph Steele, one of the chaplains at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, said that he or one of the other chaplains can help arrange for a visit, and it doesn’t have to be during the holidays. Indeed, he is currently working with a group from Aquinas High School in David City who plan to visit Madonna patients after the first of the year.
“Contact our office, Spiritual Care and we can organize it for them,” he said.
Father Fulton has been known to tell his students at Pius X High School and others that they don’t have to be part of any official organization to visit lonely people.
“It’s a spiritual work of mercy,” he reasoned. “Just go!”