Jesus said, “I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36). Those words came to life for us guests recently when making the rounds to hospitalized and homebound Salvadorans with Maryknoll Father John Northrop and a group of pastoral agents.
Rosario Amalia, 28, welcomed us to the apartment she shares with her parents on the ground floor of a public housing project in the nation’s capital of San Salvador. Paralyzed since birth, Rosario spends most of her time in a wheelchair, yet she was bright and cheerful as she said, “The weekly visits by the pastoral agents and the eucharistic blessings they give are something I look forward to and greatly raise my spirits.”
The pastoral agents are members of the Ministry to the Sick group from Cristo Salvador parish in San Salvador who visit ill, physically disabled and elderly people at home or in hospitals in and around the city. Each pastoral agent wears a simple uniform of white shirt with black skirt or trousers, and as a group they dedicate their time to offering comfort, friendship and spiritual inspiration to those they visit. “It entails love, humility, patience and obedience, but I feel the Lord will reward us,” says Juan Manuel Galvez, one of a few men who along with 40 women make up the ministry group.
We accompanied group members to the fourth floor of a housing block similar to Rosario’s, where we visited 92-year-old Maria Alicia Guzman and her family. Maria rarely leaves the building, but she appeared in good shape physically and mentally. Father Northrop heard her confession in the privacy of her bedroom. Then her daughter set a table with a lace cloth and candle from which Father Northrop gave Maria the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and Holy Communion. “It brings me joy when the ladies come with their weekly blessing, and today I feel touched that the padre came too!” said Maria.
Father Northrop, who occasionally leads the pastoral groups, describes their visits to the sick: “Sometimes you can really see the difference, week by week. There is a change of attitude, even over a short period. I meet tremendous people of faith, although you meet some people on their sick beds who say God has punished them. I try to veer them away from that and say that this is the time to get closer to the Lord.”
The missioner from Los Angeles says he has long been drawn to visiting the sick, beginning as a seminarian working in a Boston hospital. Ordained in 1974, he served in the Philippines and Mexico and in a variety of stateside assignments and says he was always energized by opportunities to assist hospital chaplains. In 2010 the Maryknoll Society granted his request to do full-time ministry among the sick in El Salvador.
“The Ministry to the Sick group had been going a long time before I arrived,” says Father Northrop. He explains that this ministry was begun by Father Joaquin Alvarez Campos, pastor of Cristo Salvador parish, where Father Northrop and Maryknoll Father John Spain assist. Father Joaquin continues to mentor the pastoral agents.
“I love doing this voluntary work,” says Maria Josefina Solis, who has been visiting the sick for over 10 years. “I am very fond of the sick people we visit, and they give so much love back to me. It is very satisfying all around.”
Maria Yolanda Sanchez, another pastoral agent, is also a eucharistic minister. Normally, she says, whether on home visits or in the hospital, the pastoral agents go in groups of two or three, including a eucharistic minister to give the sick person Holy Communion. Yolanda explains how the pastoral agents operate:
“We work two days a week, but are available on more days if needed. On Mondays we meet for an hour in the church to pray together before the visits. Then one group goes to the hospital while another goes to the homes of the sick to give Communion. On Tuesdays we meet for Mass at the hospital chapel, then go into the wards and take Communion to the patients. Our time is shared 50/50 between home and hospital visits. With home visits, each of us has a sector to visit, which is not necessarily where we live.”
We accompanied the group to a flat in San Salvador where 54-year-old Dora Alicia Delgado lives with her sister. Dora has had severe arthritis since she was 17, making it almost impossible for her to use her hands. “I have a terrible condition which has only gotten worse since I was first afflicted almost 40 years ago,” she says. “I cannot do much to help myself and am reliant on my loving sister. But the weekly visits by the pastoral care agents and being given the Eucharist at home really make a big difference in my life and that of my sister. We are very grateful.”
But Maria Yolanda Sanchez says the relationship works both ways. “We are often stopped in the street by people who tell us about others who are suffering,” she says. “This strengthens our faith and theirs. It is both friendship and spiritual.”
Featured Image: Father Northrop hears the confession of 92-year-old Maria Alicia Guzman during visit to her home.