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In permanent religious service

There are professions whose raison d'être is availability and they provide services whose effectiveness lies precisely in being able to call on them at the moment of need. There are on-call pharmacies, minimum transport services, emergency telephone... And who takes care of the things of the soul in times of need? 

Javier Peño Iglesias-April 9, 2019-Reading time: 5 minutes

Who can you turn to when the church is closed and you need a word of comfort, or to feel the closeness of God through the sacraments in an unpostponable way? Such a service has been available in Madrid for almost two years. One of its volunteers tells us how they work.

Since the beginning of his pontificate, with his Exhortation Evangelii GaudiumFrancis called us all to missionary conversion: the Church must be a mother with an "open" heart, "with doors open everywhere. This call is concretized in pastoral initiatives that make her maternal face more visible to the world. Like the one launched by the Archdiocese of Madrid on May 15, 2017, which consists of a network of priests who are available to anyone who needs a presbyter between 10 pm and 7 am. It is known as the Urgent Catholic Religious Assistance Service (SARCU). It is active every day of the year. In case of catastrophes, there is an urgent activation service by which all the priests who are part of the Service, through a group of WhatsAppwould be left for mobilization.

SARCU, tell me. How can I help you?

The priests on duty are there to help in urgent and serious cases that require priestly assistance: the dying, situations of vital physical or psychological danger, major accidents or catastrophes, human rights violations that require rapid action, etc. And this with just one call to 91 371 77 17, which is answered by a priest to whom you have to explain the specific situation that motivates the request for help and who will try to channel the appropriate response. 

Sometimes these are cases that can be transferred to a hospital where there are always chaplains on call. Other times it will require specific help that SARCU will try to provide. Fortunately, the help does not remain a one-time assistance, since, after the night service, the same priest who has attended the emergency tries to complete the help in the following days if necessary. Therefore, one of the characteristics of SARCU is to know how to accompany, with the continuity required in each case.

This initiative of the Vicariate of Social Pastoral and Innovation of Madrid, headed by the Vicar, José Luis Segovia, would not be possible without those people who, from the beginning, have been there. From the director, Bienvenido Nieto, to the coordinator, Pablo Genovés, to each of the volunteers who make SARCU a reality that works. At the time of writing this article there were already 57 priests. "But we need more!", Nieto claims. To sign up, it is as simple as sending an e-mail to sarcu@archimadrid.es. The way of working includes, in the case of a visit, the figure of the companion: a lay person who accompanies the priest and makes the needy aware that the Church is much more than priests. We are all of us.

A pastoral service of evangelization

One of the priests who attends the Service is Fernando Bielza, who wanted to participate in SARCU even before he was ordained: "For years I have suffered with impotence the sight of churches closed at almost any time of the day or night. That is why, when, while still a deacon, I heard about the creation of this Service, I immediately felt that the Lord was calling me to be the open Church in those hours when almost everyone sleeps. Before my ordination, not yet a year ago, I offered to offer some of my nights as a priest to be the presence of Christ in the darkest hours of many people's lives", states.

And he is working on it: "I've been on duty for four days now and everything happens. For example, the last Monday I was available I received 4 calls, plus an anointing to a dying woman. OSometimes, on the other hand, the phone stays silent all night, he points out. In any case, statistics say there are calls on about two out of every three days.

Fernando tells us about his SARCU journey: "It starts with a WhatsApp from the service coordinator at 9.30 p.m., who reminds you that you are operational that night. From then on you go about your normal life, but knowing that you have to be attentive to the phone for almost 12 hours, because at any time you have to leave the people you are having dinner with, or even get out of bed at whatever time it is to attend to the person who asks you. Some priests have come to celebrate weddings in articulo mortis. In my case, I have only had to go out a couple of times to administer holy anointing or viaticum to a dying person. 

But most of the calls I have fielded have come from people who are distressed in the deep hours of wakefulness. Seen from the outside, it would often seem that these are simply people with a mental imbalance: a man who has urgent doubts of faith in the middle of the night; a woman who claims to have apparitions of the Virgin Mary and is not understood by her priests; a young man who realizes that he urgently needs to go to confession because of 'the night terror' (cf. Ps 90:5); an old woman who feels lonely and, in order not to disturb her family at 5:00 in the morning, calls you... But what is the sign of this nocturnal imbalance of so many men and women who cry out to the presence of the Lord at night? Today, as always, the human spirit is besieged at night by the besiegers (cf. Tob 3:8) who prowl about 'like a roaring lion, seeking whom they may devour' (1Pet 5:8)". 

For Bielza, serving at SARCU is, first and foremost, "Another sign of God's grace to mankind. It is to be the open door of the 'field hospital' that the Church wants to be. It is to be the guardian of God's people, who 'neither slumbers nor rests' (Ps 120:4). A visit, if it is feasible, to give a hug to someone you have never seen in your life and surely will never see again; half an hour of conversation on the phone at 3 o'clock in the morning, about the beauty of life; sometimes falling asleep when someone tells you and tells you their sorrows while the dawn is shining in the window; an hour consoling a sadness...".

Giving a hug, taking communion or arranging a marriage

Bienvenido Nieto, a permanent deacon, has been the director since the beginning of the service. He emphasizes that, above all, the role of the SARCU volunteers is that of the "active listening", since many people call out of loneliness. Taking stock of this time, she recognizes the Religious Assistance Service as something "novel and extraordinarily satisfactory". And it justifies it: "It is to bring the light of Christ to those people who need encouragement and closeness that only the spiritual plane can give. It is the living realization of the Church going out. That which is so often present in pain. And precisely for this reason, we cannot set a timetable for civil servants".

Pablo Genovés, also a priest, is the coordinator of SARCU, so to speak, who is in charge of the practical matters of the Service. Organizing schedules, substitutions and so on. He is also in charge of managing with the City Council the permits to circulate in restricted access areas. In addition, the experience of collaborating with other public care services is being very productive: for example, in order to respond to the reality of suicide, last year a specific training course was organized with SAMUR volunteers and some psychologists.

In the midst of dramatic situations there is also room for anecdote. "We have calls from all over Spain and even South America - even a call asking for a marriage over the phone!", he states. Also, a concerned caller once called about an issue with her pet: "The priest who took care of him was one who worked with rescue dogs. They are like winks from God."he says.

The authorJavier Peño Iglesias

Priest, journalist and pilgrim to Santiago.

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