ASK FATHER: My priest doesn’t carry the “emergency phone”

From a reader…


What’s the deal with priests carrying their emergency cellphone on them? [Hmmm… I don’t know what the deal is!] I was disturbed to learn that our priest doesn’t keep it with him. When I asked him about it and raised my concerns, and he said that it’s not that busy and that according to St. Alphonsus Liguori, priests are only responsible for the souls directly with them.

This doesn’t sit right with me. Basically I can’t call if there’s an emergency (and they have happened in the past for our former priest who would get called out for emergency sacramental needs) because he doesn’t keep his emergency cellphone with him. I have to rely on some other priest for emergencies. [So, there is one.  Okay.] I’m sure the number gets abused, but still. We all have our crosses, this one seems a bit minor.

Other people’s crosses usually are a bit minor.

So, the priests have, over time and according to their experience, their schedules, their inclinations (yes, priests are allowed to be different), handle the “emergency phone” ways that vary from your wishes.  When you want to contact the priest, then by golly, he’d better pick up.

Sure there are emergencies: hospitals have chaplains and/or priests in rotation who can cover.  They are the first line of contact in emergencies, depending on the region, local custom etc.  Of course if there is an agreement among the priests in the area, that’s another matter.  Everyone should pull his weight.

And we all have to keep in mind that the sacrament of anointing is more of a sacrament because Fr. Sven O’Reilly gives it rather than Fr. “Just call me Bob” Hühnerbein.

This email reminded me of something I posted many years ago, sure-fire way method for how to improve your priest:

The Perfect Priest

The results of a computerized survey indicate the perfect priest preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor. He is 28 years old and has preached 30 years. He has a burning desire to work with teenagers and spends all of his time with senior citizens.

The perfect priest smiles all the time with a straight face because he has a sense of humor that keeps him seriously dedicated to his work. He makes 15 calls daily on parish families, shut-ins and the hospitalized, and is always in his office when needed.

If your priest does not measure up, simply send this letter to six other churches that are tired of their priest, too. Then bundle up your priest and send him to the church on the top of the list. In one week, you will receive 1,643 priests and one of them will be perfect. Have faith in this procedure.

One parish broke the chain and got its old priest back in less than three weeks.

And if that doesn’t work, there’s always this.  HERE

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    I will never forget the time my pastor was in the middle of saying mass when his cellphone rang. He looked up, smiled at the congregation, answered the phone, and said, “Mom, I’m saying mass”.

  2. Curate says:

    An honest question I’d like someone to weigh in on: Do we parish priests have more of a moral obligation to be available for emergencies because of the dawn of cell phones? What about just a few generations ago before cell phones, or even during the centuries before the telephone existed: were those priests more “off the hook” if they didn’t make it time for an emergency? Does the increase in technology correlate with an increase in demand for priests to be available? If so, how far will that go?

  3. Dear Curate,

    I was thinking about the same thing as I read this posting. The change is not whether or not the priest should be available in emergencies, but probably what counts as an emergency. Before cars, the one with an “emergency” had to saddle up or walk to the rectory. This forced them to think: “Do I really need the priest right now?” That inconvenience also meant that those tending the sick didn’t wait till the last moment to get the priest to come and give Last Rites. The set up an appointment well ahead of time. Then came automobiles. And it was easier to decide: “I need the priest now.” But not by much. You still had to go and get him.

    Then came phones. Suddenly, declaring an “emergency” because much easier, even if you had to go through the secretary or an answering service (say, at 1 am). With the cell phone, I can declare an “emergency” for the particular priest I prefer at any hour of the day. And so can all the other parishioners.

    Do not get me wrong. I believe that a pastor (or curate) should be ready to rush to the hospital when a parishioner is dying. But, that situation should only result from a heart attack or bad accident. If the parishioner is hospitalized and declining, a request for an visit set up ahead of time prevents the mid-night emergency.

    One might ask oneself: If I had to walk down to the rectory myself and knock on the door, would this still be such a pressing need? And what might I have done myself to prevent this last minute need?

  4. Curate: Fr. Augustine and I are thinking along the same line, but since GMTA that shouldn’t surprise.

    There are a few issues that we might consider.

    Once upon a time we lived in an age when the average practicing Catholic knew all about the Four Last Things and took them seriously. That might have involved also more penitential practices and a real desire to remain in the state of grace for long periods. Surely some didn’t not succeed, but surely some did. However, the petition in the Litany of Saints to save us from a “sudden and unprovided death” (without the sacraments) must have sounded loudly in their ears and hearts.

    With the acceleration of tech in our lives, we have many more distractions and, I hazard to guess, the Four Last Things are less and less on people’s minds, even of the faithful. Hence, when there is an emergency, we are a) conditioned in our fast lives, like good savvy consumers, to want what we need right now (if not like fast food, then not unlike fast food) and b) we have a sense of panic is we don’t get it.

    That said, even allowing for the fact that parish priests, pastors, have the cura animarum for souls in their charge, we also allow for the fact now that this is a highly mobilized society, with different needs than 50 years ago. Priest do want to help souls in an emergency. Of course they do. On the other hand, I recall days when I constantly carried “beeper” (remember them?) and did so far more often than was my turn because others in the rotation didn’t pull their weight, even the guy assigned to the hospital!

    Finally, another factor is that there are fewer priests now than before. In urban areas there were generally more than one in a parish and one could be available. Now, that’s not the case. Pray for vocations and PROMOTE them.

  5. APX says:

    And we all have to keep in mind that the sacrament of anointing is more of a sacrament because Fr. Sven O’Reilly gives it rather than Fr. “Just call me Bob” Hühnerbein.

    The argument could be made since the priest is question is from the FSSP and does all the sacraments according to the Roman Ritual whereas the other priests in the Diocese don’t use the Roman Ritual that the Extreme Unction given by the aforementioned priest is more efficacious based on the prayers asking for things the Annointing of the Sick doesn’t.

    [Firstly, nothing in the note from the reader says anything about FSSP. Next, yes, there are difference in the rites which can have their differing effects in a person. We are our rites. However, if a sacrament is valid, it is not more of a sacrament by reason of the rite used. There are attendant aspects of the rites which make a difference to us all, but let’s be careful about even suggesting that a valid sacrament is somehow less valid.]

  6. MrsMacD says:

    Weighing in with my own two cents; the only emergency that a priest needs to be available for is the last rites. If a priest doesn’t take this seriously, you have to wonder if he cares about the salvation of souls. Remember dear Fathers of souls, God is never outdone.

    That said, a priest needs to be, above all, a man of prayer, if he has a cell phone with him all the time that might mess with his quiet, and as a result be more of a distraction to him than a help to souls.

    to the question asker; Do you not think that God will provide for the souls of your loved ones? Do you think that God needs a cell phone to get to your priest? And if your priest is all that bad did you say rosaries, have Masses for, offer Holy Hours, and do penance for your priest? Because if you didn’t pray for your priest then you got what you deserve. Don’t neglect to beg God to give the last rites to those who need it, but in the end it’s in His Hands and to His mercy/justice. God can work miracles but He wants us to give all our loaves and fishes.

  7. MrsMacD says:

    I forgot about the lack of vocations. I guess that’s going to have an enormous impact on the availability of the last rites with the baby boomers and priests getting older and frailer. Wow.

    Father, I’ve read that after Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared, there were priests who died of exhaustion from overwork, because of the number of conversions. It seems incredible to me that Jesus would want priests to die of overwork. I mean He did die on the cross for us and a priest is an alter-christus but surely He would provide them the sustenance for their devotion? Or a crown in heaven. God bless all priests.

    [This is way above my pay grade.]

  8. fishonthehill says:

    I guess it the issue has to do with perspective.
    The parish I grew up in had a something like a police call box outside the rectory front door (hoot-n-holler line), that was switched to the priests room who was on duty.
    When I was ordained 18 years ago, there were 4 priests in the rectory and we still functioned with a “Duty System”. The day you were on duty you were expected to be available for the day, whatever that may have entailed. When the office closed the secretary flipped a switch to the doorbell, which rang in the room of the priest on duty, and the phone was switched as well. When cell phones became more popular, my day on duty meant I would not venture too far from the parish in the event I was called. I had duty one or two days a week.
    That same parish only eliminated the concept of Double Duty… the priest who covered if the man on Duty was called out on an emergency, a generation prior.
    Now I am in a parish where it is me and my curate. Duty phone is issued back and forth between the both of us each month, and I don’t even carry a second phone, the emergency number is simply call forwarded to my cell.
    I welcome the technology, and it has been very helpful in the moments when someone is truly in need of a priest. I don’t know whether or not we have a moral obligation to “carry” the phone but I must say in all the years of using an emergency phone I believe its worth it! Emergencies are never scheduled and the first thing I say upon arriving at the scene of a true emergency is “Thank you for calling me.” I also have no problem telling someone that their phone call is not an emergency (when its not) and telling them to call the office in the morning.
    As for generations past, before phones and the like, it was not uncommon for the local police officer to bang on a rectory door and bring a priest to where he was needed.
    If you want to reflect on the nature to what extant we should go for those who are in need of a priest… google image search the painting:
    “Mathew James Lawless The Sick Call”

  9. fishonthehill says:

    sorry about the spelling…”extent”.
    I’m a bad speller I went to Catholic school all my life!

  10. Rob83 says:

    I would not assume a hospital will have an arrangement in place to provide priests, even if it is advertising itself as a Catholic hospital. A few years ago, despite their website saying a priest was available 24/7, a relative in extremis was sent Sister Pantsuit for last rites by the Catholic hospital. When that error was attempted to be corrected, the staff rather tartly insisted no priest would be available until morning and didn’t seem all that concerned about the request (it being at that time just after 6 in the evening). A year later, another relative, and this time Preacher Protestant was sent to do last rites and it took a couple of urgent phone calls to the local priests (some 30 minutes away) to please come ASAP.

    That being said, usually the rectory will have someone to answer the phone even if Father isn’t available, and if it is truly an emergency, they are usually happy to suggest a nearby priest to contact.

  11. APX says:

    I would not assume a hospital will have an arrangement in place to provide priests, even if it is advertising itself as a Catholic

    I was in the ER and my friend who took me there asked the nurse about priests coming to the ER to do last rites and she said so many patients come in and want a priest, but can’t find them to come. We also had a parishioner die during surgery without receiving last rites beforehand because it wasn’t considered life threatening. I just assume I’m going to die unexpectedly and go to confession weekly and never travel anyplace far without going to confession. I’m also in the habit of reciting the viaticum prayers in my prayer book before each communion just in case it is my last. Control what you can control.

  12. Cafea Fruor says:

    Not being able to reach a priest 24/7 sounds like great motivation for going to confession frequently and so that, should an emergency arise and you can’t get to a priest, you’re not caught in state of mortal sin.

  13. hwriggles4 says:

    About six years ago, our good pastor (who is now a bishop) published an article in our monthly newsletter on how sick calls are handled. This way if a parishioner was going in for an operation or treatment, the parish office was notified ahead of time (this was also when our parish had three priests, now they have two). An emergency call was handled by calling the parish office, which after hours a call would forward to (I believe) one of the priests mobile phones. This way each priest didn’t give out his private cell to the world. Some priests do take turns with nights being on call. I did that myself when I was assigned to an ambulance.

    I know a few nurses and it’s difficult to find a priest. Some nurses will take the time to call parishes, and it may take four or five tries before getting a person. (One funny story was a nurse getting a person and saying something like “Father Z, this is Nurse Smith over at Dane County hospital, we have a patient here who is Catholic and he needs to be read his rights.” ) Sadly, there are priests who say, “sorry, Mr or Mrs so and so isn’t one of my parishioners ” which is no help to someone who really wants to talk to a priest and has not been to Mass in 20 years. My mother really liked a priest at her parish who took one day a week to visit a local nursing home. After this priest retired, his replacement did not resume this ministry.

    I think some dioceses assign some permanent deacons to hospital ministry (I knew a late vocation priest years ago who was a widower and a retired doctor – good fit for hospital ministry – he lived to be 91) but deacons cannot hear confessions and cannot do the Anointing of the Sick. Those sacraments are reserved for priests.

  14. I recall being given the news that our youngest daughter, ventilated in NICU, less than a day old might not live to see day two. I called a friend who was also in charge of the neighbouring parish. He came – although this was his day off and he was an hour away enjoying down time with his family. There are more like him in our diocese, so perhaps we ought to give thanks for them and pray for more. And trust that they are doing their best, and don’t need back seat drivers!

  15. Rob in Maine says:

    I pray daily for my wife and I ask St. Monica for her intersession. One of the “strikes” against the Church she holds to this day is that when her father passed away when she was six-years-old in 1967 is that her mother called the priest and then the doctor. The doctor showed up before the priest. I can only imagine today if Father didn’t immediately answer a text.

  16. Unwilling says:

    We are always responsible for our own acts, whether sinful or repentant. And we are called always to seek perfection. But I have also been told that loving Providence has arranged that we face Judgement at that moment which is, for each of us as we are and can be, the best possible.

  17. SanSan says:

    I was taken to emergency for a possible heart attack…….I called for a Priest at the hospital because I might be going into surgery for an enlarged aorta. Gratefully, I didn’t need surgery and I wasn’t dying–after 8 hours no priest ever arrived.

    I’ve told my family to call a priest first, then the doctor. I’m with APX above.

  18. tzabiega says:

    I have to disagree on this one and I will give a few examples that should shame lazy priests (and there are many out there). One blatant example occurred one Advent at a parish I used to teach catechism at. There was an assigned time for confession and a group of 20 people were waiting inside the Church. Both of the priests in this parish were orthodox. I called the parish office and was transferred to the answering service. I told the lady at the answering service about the situation, and she refused to contact either of the priests, because she was told not to unless its an emergency. Twenty people waiting for confession at an assigned date in a parish that only had one or two Advent dates beyond the Saturday 4 to 4:30 pm weekly confession was not important to these priests. I should have not expected more, as the associate pastor at that parish once told me: “tomorrow is Assumption, but I’m lucky because it the pastor’s turn to celebrate Mass on that day.” Another example was a priest who was removed from ministry for an allegation of sexual misconduct, but at least he had the right idea about his priestly obligations. His former organist who helped drive him to his appointments when he was older told me how two priests in his parish would turn off their phones, while he would keep it on all of the time and would drive immediately, day or night to visit a sick or dying person. The priest, who rarely talked as he was losing his memory, suddenly said to me at that point: “I had to, I had the soul of those people on my conscience.” I have a Polish priest working in the U.S. complains to me at times how lazy many American priests are, sitting around in the parish office, talking to the secretary, and how he has to listen to confessions from neighboring parishes because they would tell their parishioners: “go to that parish which has confessions every day so we don’t have to have confessions.” A priest is called Father for a reason: he is the father of the people of his parish and should always be available to his children when important issues occur, just like I always have to be available to my children is something important occurs. I answer my phone or call back soon when my kids need me, the Father in the parish should answer his phone or call back soon when his kids need him. Period.

  19. grumpyoldCatholic says:

    I live in a small rural community. We have a diocesan parish here and the priest will not come to the hospital for last rites ( if there is such a thing anymore Not sure if Vatican LL changed or did away with it ) I seems you have to be a member of the parish to get them I also understand they charge like $200 for baptisms. Not cool in my humble opinion

  20. Flos Carmeli says:

    In the few occasions I have had in my life so far to want to get in touch with a priest to minister to a dying family member, I have always been able to reach one in very short order. And what’s more, every time, that priest has been eager to come to that soul’s aid, and did so with much compassion. On one occasion, I was distraught due to the painful circumstances, and the priest actually gave me his personal mobile number and insisted I call him when I was in need of the sacraments for my beloved dying father.
    I thank God for our priests, but know I need to be more careful about taking them and their ministrations for granted.
    May God grant them a great and blessed reward for their fidelity to his sheep!

  21. Alice says:

    I am the organist for a small non-Catholic congregation. The pastor works as a hospital chaplain. I have a high opinion of the priests he knows well ;) Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s ever met my pastor, despite the fact that he’s been in the area for a few years. It only confirms my impression that he doesn’t care about the salvation of souls. Fortunately, the vast majority of the priests I’ve met do care and my pastor seems to be an exception.

  22. tho says:

    In this day and age, there isn’t a catholic priest who is not under pressure, because of the homosexuals abuses of many clerics. When you have a holy priest, and you complain about him not walking around with an ear piece, I consider your complaint silly. I was taught that a sincere Act of Contrition, when a priest is not available, will cover almost any situation. May God bless our devoted priests and bishops, their job is not an easy one.

  23. Joe in Canada says:

    The advent of call display has done wonders. “Back in the day” when I was on call at night, I would receive crank calls and calls from drunks crying about their late mothers. I got a call at 3 am once for a baptismal certificate. I heard his wife yelling at him in the background to shut up and get back to bed.
    People are funny. A retired pediatrician friend of mine tells me about when she got a phone call during a snow storm and absolutely had to go out to a rural house. She knew the family had a truck so she asked if the husband could come pick her up because of the weather. The woman said “I wouldn’t let my husband go out on a night like this.”

  24. Cincinnati Priest says:

    tzabiega: Hmm. From the beginning of your post, I sense red flags. First, you begin announcing you want to “shame” lazy priests. Not a very charitable motive. Perhaps better to pray for an increase in their zeal.

    Second, you assume that the priests didn’t “care” about the 20 people waiting for confession. From your post, it is not known why they weren’t present. Perhaps they were called away by an emergency.
    If you don’t know otherwise, you should assume the most charitable motive.

    You state that confessions is “only” available on Saturdays. As long as they are published well in advance, the lay faithful could share responsibility with the priest in arranging their schedules accordingly. I agree that priests should make themselves widely available for confessions (especially in Advent and Lent), but in an era of priest shortage, the faithful may have to make some sacrifices to come at a time which isn’t perfectly convenient to them.

    Perhaps the priests had a legitimate reason to tell the answering service not to contact them in an emergency. For example, I have been a priest in parishes with Christmas food drive programs where instructions are given to call an extension to be placed on a list for gift distribution . Many refuse to wait or leave a message, so will “bypass the system” by calling the priest’s emergency line. Sometimes, this can be dozens and dozens of calls, clogging the line that should be used for true emergencies such as last rites.

    I am not saying that there is no such thing as a lazy priest, but, judging merely from what you write, it seems you be coming to rash and uncharitable conclusions.

    Until you have walked in the priest’s footsteps, I think it can be spiritually dangerous to make such harsh judgments.

    You say that you are always available to your children when there is a need. I can only assume that’s true. But every parent tells his children at some time or another, “Some other time” or “That will have to wait.” Note that it is the parent, not the child, who decides what to prioritize. A priest being “available” to his spiritual children doesn’t mean that his children define the priority and that he drops everything merely because they ask.

  25. Cincinnati Priest says:

    CORRECTION: not to contact them EXCEPT in an emergency ….

  26. APX says:

    I was taught that a sincere Act of Contrition, when a priest is not available, will cover almost any situation.

    I’m sorry to say you were taught wrong. Perfect contrition (that is being sorry for your sins strictly out of love for God and not out of a fear of going to Hell) requires special graces and doesn’t grow on trees (as Fr. Ripperger says). Anything else is attrition and doesn’t suffice for removing the guilt of mortal sins.

  27. tho says:

    APX: I was only in the sixth grade, and our Sister was not a graduate of a theological school where they talk in circles.

  28. Reading comments from priests are indeed edifying. They truly want to do what they can to save souls and relieve them of at least if the spiritual burden of their sins and bring our Lord to them in their last days and moments. It makes me want to put my forehead to the ground everytime I see our priests in tganksgiving to God. Perhaps I can do this internally and save them the awkwardness of an experience like that. Pray for priests. God will listen and reward our sincere efforts to bless them.

  29. tzabiega says:

    Cincinnati priest: Father, I have the greatest respect for priests, but the complaints I hear most about lazy priests is from…priests who have to do the work the lazy priests are not doing. In regards to the two priests who didn’t show up for the confessions: maybe they forgot about it, but the point is that they should have let their answering service know that in such a case they should be called. Then, the priest on call could have told me: Tom, could you apologize to the people in the church because both of us had emergencies to attend to. But I couldn’t even reach them. On the other hand, whenever I call a local parish run by Polish priests, they always answer the parish phone themselves (they only have a part time secretary 3 evenings a week and a full time organist, but they have time for confession twice every day and during every Mass on Sunday, and 3 Masses every day, with 5 on Sunday, and there are only two of them who are permanently there. I know of two young men who left the priesthood (again, I heard this from priests, my usual sources of information about these issues) because of complete lack of support from lazy pastors who did their own thing (nothing to do with the sacraments), while the newly ordained associate pastors were overwhelmed by the responsibilities their pastors were not willing to share. It is actually not liberal priests who are the main problem in the Church: it is the lazy priests and the careerist priests. I have been blessed with knowing many wonderful priests who do their best and work hard at bringing the Sacraments and the Truth to the people they serve. It is in defense of them that I wrote about the lazy ones. Notice that I didn’t criticize the abuser priest I mentioned: that is because anyone can fall into sin, even the worse sins. But when God calls you to be the father of a family or the million times more important Father priest, you have to completely give your life up for that vocation: and that vocation is primarily bringing the Sacraments to the faithful. Confession for 30 minutes a week, a Mass every other weekday and two on Sunday, baptisms relegated to the deacon once a month, and relegating hospital visits to the hospital chaplain is just not good enough.

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