Life & Soul

Fr Matthew Pittam: Serving in the hours of darkness

A call in the middle of the night is never going to be a good thing in a presbytery. Tonight’s call was to ask me to attend the nursing home to anoint someone who was dying.

I grabbed my sick bag, which I keep in a cupboard in the hall, and left the house as quietly as possible so as not to wake the rest of the household.

This is one of the drawbacks for married clergy with children. The need to be available as a priest doesn’t disappear because I have a family. It is a factor that is not often reflected upon in the debates about married clergy. Like most priests, I am also on call for the local hospital and so the nights when I am on the rota will often involve being summoned there, too.

The country lanes on the way to the care home take on a different character during the early hours of the morning. I passed an owl as I drove down a single-track lane but met no other traffic as I made my way.

I always feel a great sense of privilege to be with someone and their family during their final few hours of life. I did not know the person today as they had only recently been admitted to the home. We do visit each week with Holy Communion but this man had not been added to our regular list.

Not knowing a person or their family in this situation makes it harder. Sadly, in most situations when I am called out, the person will be a stranger. With someone that I have known there is always a sense of relationship. When I have never known the person, I do my best to strike up a rapport with the family but the sad circumstances make this difficult and small talk is not always appropriate.

Fortunately I knew the nurse on duty and she introduced me and stayed throughout the anointing and prayers. During the rite for the Sacrament of the Sick we read a wonderful passage from the Epistle of James: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” (James 5:14-16).

This sums up beautifully the essence of this sacrament. Some Christian traditions are wary of the sacraments and yet here is a clear New Testament prescription for what I did this evening. I tend not to stay for too long once I have anointed a person, unless I get a sense that the family wish me to remain. The last few moments or hours of someone’s life are precious and I am aware that the family need this time to themselves with their loved ones.

Often families who do not practise the faith also feel a sense of awkwardness in the presence of a priest. It is always sad when the person who is dying clearly had a faith which has not been handed on to their children and grandchildren, to the point where the sacraments are largely alien to them.

Tonight was a little like that. The family called me out because they knew that it was what their loved one would have wanted. But I did not get much sense that it gave any personal hope or comfort to them. I do my best to explain what I am doing as I anoint someone, and I don’t assume that those present will have any prior knowledge or understanding. In that way it is an opportunity gently to share the faith of the Church and remind them that we are still there for them in their time of need.

I did what they called me to do and, I hope, offered some comfort to the family and peace to the dying. What happened tonight was largely unremarkable, and as I drove home I thought of all those other priests who will have been called out during these hours of darkness to do exactly the same thing in faithfulness to their vocation.

This is a ministry which is largely unseen. When we hear of a crisis of vocations, we often think of a reduction of Masses or closure of churches. The ministry to the sick and care of the dying is one that will also suffer if we do not have more vocations to the sacred priesthood.

Fr Matthew Pittam is the parish priest of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, and author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom (St Pauls). Fr Dominic Allain is on holiday