Last week a telephone call came into my office from an Atlanta number that my staff did not immediately recognize, and so they thought it might simply be from a friend or an acquaintance from my past service there. The number of calls that do come to the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center each week easily surpass the hundreds. Most often, they are looking for information on a parish or school or cleric. Usually, they can be forwarded to the appropriate individual department or answered without much difficulty. Sometimes they are misdirected and can be suitably dispatched. However, this Atlanta caller seemed to represent something personal.

When I called the individual, I discovered that she was not an acquaintance, she was not a Catholic, and she had a host of concerns. She first asked if I could speak to an elected official about an issue on her behalf. I told her that she should contact that individual’s government office.

Then she got down to the more significant matter. She was estranged from her daughter and had not spoken to her in over five years. She had recently heard that her daughter was seriously ill, and she wanted to reconnect. I asked her what her faith community might be. She told me that she didn’t have any personal church or pastor that she could call. I asked her what her daughter’s faith might be, and she said that she didn’t think her daughter was a church member. I asked if I could connect her daughter to a local pastor in the area, and she told me that her daughter probably would not respond. I then invited her to pray with me for her daughter and for her own comfort. I told her that I would keep her and her daughter in my prayers, and I have done so.

When the conversation ended, I reflected that this unknown person had called a random priest from another faith tradition in another territory to share a sorrow and to seek some comfort. How she chose the archbishop of Washington remains a mystery to me. I suspect most of our clergy and religious might have had many similar experiences in their past. People reach out for pastoral guidance and support often with little personal connection to the person at the other end of the line. I felt very much like a priest when I hung up the phone. It was a comforting feeling for me, and I pray that the caller may have felt the same sentiment at the conclusion of our conversation.

People often seek the pastoral care of the clergy in moments when they find themselves at confusing and painful episodes in their lives – even those who might not be active churchgoers or even believers may reach out for spiritual comfort and guidance. Often they do not ask for specific solutions but only for a compassionate ear. We bishops may not receive such opportunities often, but it is helpful to recall the good that can be accomplished in such situations. I have prayed for this woman and her daughter frequently since that episode.

Telephone ministry may not be the most personal or satisfying service that we can offer, but for that person, I pray that it was worth the telephone call. I have no idea what that woman may have shared with her friends and neighbors about her conversation with the archbishop of Washington or if my title made any difference. I am not even certain that they would have believed that she even had such a chat.

Nevertheless, for this archbishop of Washington it was a worthwhile occasion to offer some spiritual support and prayerful guidance since that was the reason that I had become a priest in the first place.