Priest masters the ABC of parish visiting

WELLINGTON — Upper Hutt parish priest Fr Ron Bennett is on track to visit all 1250 homes of Catholic families in his parish by the end of the year.
As he does each year.
Fr Bennett told NZ Catholic he expected to have visited 820 homes by the end of August, so he is “on target”. Going to people’s homes on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, Fr Bennett publicises where he will visit by listing the first letter of the streets concerned in the parish notices each week. For instance, in August he visited the “M” streets.
Visitation of people in their homes by parish clergy was cited by English priest Fr Michael Holman, SJ, at the recent New Zealand Catholic Education Convention as an example of meeting young people and families “on their territory”, rather than expecting them to meet pastors on Church territory.
Visiting families in their homes has declined because of lower clergy numbers and an increase in parish-based education and formation activities, Fr Holman said.
But despite Vatican II’s famous words about the joys, hopes, grief and anguish of all people not being a matter of indifference for Christians, Fr Holman warned that the official church can seem to “have distanced ourselves from ordinary concerns, from money and health and the problems of children growing up”.
Fr Bennett said he is carrying on the tradition of visitation practised by the previous Upper Hutt parish priest, the late Fr Geoff Broad.
“People enjoyed his visits and were used to them. I just carried on what he had begun,” Fr Bennett said.
But Fr Broad used to visit families in alphabetical order, according to their surnames, and this involved “hopping all over the parish”, so Fr Bennett schedules his visits according to street names.
Visitation can involve negotiating farm tracks and gates, the occasional dog and electronically-controlled gates.
“But usually it’s just a case of going up the path and knocking on the door.”
Fr Bennett said people enjoy the visits and he enjoys doing them. He tries to put people at ease and he lets them “dictate the pace” of the visit. Sometimes conversation moves to “deeper things”, into areas the person is really concerned about.
“They, to me, are kind of ‘aha’ moments, or even ‘God’ moments. They don’t happen often, but when they do, they are precious.”
On the lighter side, Fr Bennett said he can only drink so much tea or coffee in a day, so he asks for a half cup or a small cup usually. “Some [people] ask ‘top half or bottom half’,” he said.
People have a chance to share about their lives and the things that matter to them. Young families often discuss Baptism.
“Two years ago we had 92 Baptisms in a year, and I’m sure part of that was due to visitation,” Fr Bennett said.
Other topics that can be touched on are people finding it difficult to get to Mass — so eucharistic ministers can be arranged to bring Holy Communion. Visits are also an opportunity to discuss Catholic schooling for children. Fr Bennett can learn about people’s gifts and encourage them into ministries when such gifts can be exercised.
When families are not at home, Fr Bennett leaves a card to let them know he called. Sometimes he follows up with a phone call. He also sends out a monthly email of parish news.
Fr Bennett said his visiting doesn’t interfere with his other parish duties, as Saturday and Sunday afternoons are “quiet times”.
He thinks visitation is worthwhile.
“It’s an opportunity to be with one’s people, to be a shepherd to them — to know each by name.”

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Michael Otto

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