One of the corporal works of mercy, as anyone who remembers their penny catechism will know, is visiting the sick. It’s one of our basic responsibilities as followers of Christ. How we live out this important part of our common Christian vocation will vary considerably depending on the culture to which we belong. Is individual illness a private or public matter? Is a communal response expected/welcomed or is it avoided? What kind of response is considered proper?
Here in the mountains of Taiwan the Atayal people have a distinctly public and communal approach that includes me as their priest but is not dependent on my being involved. If someone from any of our villages is taken to hospital and remains there for more than a few days (regardless of the cause) it is expected that their Catholic neighbours in the village will visit as a group. What often happens is that someone from the village phones me or someone mentions it at Sunday Mass. It is never a simple request, more a statement of intent (‘We can visit X today?’) and because I drive an eight-seater van I am the transport of choice. As a person’s stay in the hospital lengthens, and we have not visited, the pressure becomes quite insistent. Even distant relatives of the sick person from other villages will ask why we haven’t been to visit.
These visits are not casual affairs but full-scale expeditions. The main hospitals are an average two hours drive one way and the trip must include a meal and shopping. Typically, we leave before noon and drive directly to the hospital. Everyone (family and visitors) gather around the bed of the sick person. Hospital personnel are very understanding, as are other sick people in adjacent beds. There are questions about the state of the person’s health, including rather specific queries about the details (in NZ we would call these queries intrusive), and often there are jokes at the sick person’s expense. At some point one of the visitors will declare it is time to pray.
How we pray can vary quite a bit. It always begins with a hymn in the Atayal language, laying on of hands (by everyone gathered around the bed), prayers for their swift recovery and for the peace of their family, saying the ‘Our Father’, ‘Hail Mary’, ‘Glory be’, and ending with another hymn. If I am present we may also sprinkle holy water, give absolution, and anoint the sick person, distribute holy communion to everyone, and end with a blessing. If a patient is in isolation, the family gather around the plate-glass window of the room and we sing/pray.
After prayers, the visitors give a cash donation to the family (the money comes from collections taken during weekly house prayers in the village) and individual visitors may also press some banknotes into the hands of the sick person. This is a very practical expression of concern. In Taiwan hospitals a member of the family is expected to stay with the patient to bathe, dress, feed, toilet and generally care for them. It is also expected that the family will invite visitors to eat something in thanks. This can be as simple as fruit at the bedside or a full-scale meal at a local restaurant. It is a highly relaxed, social, and convivial part of the visit as the food and drink flow. Sometimes the socialising can take longer than the hospital visit itself (visitors usually stay no more than 30 minutes at the bedside). Families are visibly happy to have their neighbours visit. It is a sign of hospitality in the broadest sense; an expression of social belonging and comradeship.
When I worked in the lowlands with ethnic Chinese parishes, I would often find out someone was ill only after they had returned home. For the Chinese, illness is something intensely private to the family, a misfortune to be treated with circumspection, and it is not expected that the priest visit the hospital or that mention be made during Mass for the sick person. The Atayal people could not be more different. They turn a Christian duty into a genuine pleasure. I know which I prefer.
Fr Larry Barnett is a Columban missionary from Takaka, presently based in Taiwan. Last year he celebrated his 25th year of priesthood.