Communion volunteers offer profound connection to patients

Categories: Around the Diocese

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Mark Donlin, coordinator of spiritual care volunteers at the St. Cloud Hospital, center, and Kathleen Henning, the first lay minister for the hospital, lower left, join in a blessing with hospital chaplain Father Mark Stang, who commissioned three new extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in the hospital chapel Oct. 20. They are, from right, Mary Kuhn, Gregory Kuhn and Sylvia Hoihjelle. Photo by Kristi Anderson / The Visitor

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Kathleen Henning knows a lot about service. For years, she worked alongside her husband, Val, and their seven children, serving up their famous burgers, fries and milkshakes at Val’s Rapid Serv, an iconic fast food drive-in in East St. Cloud.

Once their kids were old enough to help their father at the drive-in, Kathleen began volunteering at St. Cloud Hospital, first in the coffee shop and later as a volunteer representative for patients. It was there that she got to know the late Father Al Stangl.

“He needed someone to help him set up the altar for a service,” she remembered. “I was the sacristan at St. Augustine Church so he asked me to do it. That’s how it all got started.”

Father Stangl began to call on Henning regularly to help him with various tasks. It was then — nearly four decades ago — that he asked her if she would be willing to help him distribute Communion to the patients.

“I told Father Al that the first time I see someone dying, I am going to run the other way. This really wasn’t my thing,” she said. “But then when I started, it just came naturally. You’d be surprised. God takes care of you.”

As the first lay extraordinary minister of Holy Communion at the hospital, she noticed something changed in her each time she walked through a patient’s door. “You don’t even have to think. It all just comes to you,” she said. “It is a grace.”

More ministers needed

“Eucharistic ministers offer a profound connection to patients and families conveying our mission to reflect the healing mission of Jesus,” said Bret Reuter, director of mission and spiritual care for the hospital. “Although their time with patients and families is brief, their genuine caring presence as they share the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is profound.”

Mark Donlin, coordinator of spiritual care volunteers, says there is a high demand for more extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Right now, the hospital has 36 volunteers; one or more volunteers distribute Communion to an average of 190 patients each day. A standard round takes between two and three hours.

When Henning began her service, there wasn’t much training, she said. Now there is a more formal process.

Donlin explained, “We go over the rite for extraordinary ministers and then have them shadow an existing volunteer and truly discern if they would like to become commissioned to do ministry to the sick via eucharistic ministry.”

Typically, a minister knocks on a patient’s door, makes an introduction and asks the patient if he or she would like to receive Communion. If yes, they might then ask, “What are we praying for today?”

The volunteer listens to the person’s response, which Donlin said is an essential piece.

“When a minister enters the room, something special happens,” he said. “Our patients feel the embrace of their church reaching out to them through the warm smile of the volunteer. In that moment of caring, when the two souls are side by side, our patients are comforted by the fact that they are part of something bigger than themselves.”

Written prayers are read and then an Act of Contrition is spoken. Depending on the health of the patient, the minister may read a short reading, followed by an Our Father and Lamb of God before distributing Holy Communion.

“The Eucharist is held high and the patient hears those familiar words, ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ As they lie in bed, looking at the Eucharist, amidst the losses, pain and frustration, our patients are gently caressed with their true identity — a chosen and blessed child of God,” Donlin said.

Giving and receiving

Henning, who retired this year at age 90 after 36 years and 10,000 hours of service, feels she was bringing the patients the gift of Communion. But, she says, she also received a gift from them.

“Sometimes people would say, ‘You are the best thing that happened in my life.’ Some people would say, ‘You are the best thing that happened today.’ It was really touching. I had the feeling I was needed,” she said.

Her experience at the hospital gave her a different purpose, a different identity.

“It also taught me how to pray better,” she said. “It had a big impact on my faith.”

It helps to be inclined to kindness, gentleness and empathy to serve in this way, Donlin said. Henning added that “God will equip you — you just have to believe in what you are doing.”