This summer, one of my regular duties is to visit the hospital down the street from the Cathedral. I have had the singular experience of doing so with a veteran priest from our diocese, Fr. Richard Morrow. He really makes me want to be a priest.
Here’s the way it usually goes: I walk with Fr. Morrow to the room. He always has the oils. I always have the Eucharist. I look at my sheet, mention the person’s first name, and Fr. Morrow knocks, “Is it okay to come in?” The patient is, I think, usually surprised by this question. The hospital is not normally the sort of place where privacy reigns. Sometimes the patient is busy, but most of the time they invite us in.
We enter the room. The lights are always dim. There is always a faint antiseptic odor that lingers behind all of the others, making the sometimes floral, sometimes medicinal, sometimes human smells take on a foreign and almost alien character. The patients never look good. Sometimes behind their half-welcoming, half-curious glances there is a touch of embarrassment that the priest (and his assistant) is seeing them in this condition. Most times their faces are filled with fear: fear of their condition, fear of the unknown, fear of sickness, fear of death, sometimes even fear of recovery. And much of the time, a visit from the priest only increases that fear.
Many of them assume we think they are dying, and that’s why a priest is there. Some of them shoo us away after only a brief encounter. Occasionally someone greets us with hostility. I remind myself that I am not the one in the hospital. I am not the one suffering. Then some vaguely prideful thought about being persecuted comes to mind, and I think about saying some pithy half-baked self-righteous pearl of (false) wisdom to Fr. Morrow. But I don’t say it, because I see he is praying for that person, his kind old eyes intently closed. Then he gives them a blessing—with the wrong hand. His other hand doesn’t work as well as it used to. Then we move on to the next room. Fr. Morrow is unfazed. There is work to be done, and the Holy Spirit will prevail in the end.
We enter the room of a very old woman. She has soft hands and kind eyes, but she will not live much longer. Already her lungs have rebelled against her, one last remnant of that rebellion of body against soul she inherited from the fall. Her mouth gapes open as she gasps for breath. Her lips move, but no sound comes out. She grasps Fr. Morrow’s hand; she wants to speak to him. But her body is no longer following her mind’s commands. Fr. Morrow puts down his book. He bends over—slowly, just as a priest will one day for him, just as a priest will one day for me—and he covers her hand with his other. He quietly and intently recites the Act of Contrition. He is speaking for her.
Her hand clutches his more firmly. Her eyes shoot around the room, locking on with mine, which are filled with a confused mixture of sorrow and joy. Is this a moment to rejoice or a moment to weep? I cannot decide. Fr. Morrow is not concerned with my machinations. He simply continues his prayer—one member of the Body supporting the other who can no longer speak for herself. He finishes and then begins the prayer of absolution, wiping away whatever sins this woman had committed. Her eyes began to show life, mixed with confusion and frustration, her mouth gaping, desperate to form a word.
Fr. Morrow fumbles in his coat pocket for his oil. He speaks kind words about Jesus and about how long our Lord has waited for this moment. He speaks of the Paradise that awaits the blessed. He dips his thumb in the oil, making the sign of the cross on her forehead—the same forehead she had touched a million times with holy water. He traces the cross on her hands, the same hands that have held Jesus so many times, that have wrapped themselves around her children and grandchildren, that have worked and toiled, but have now lost their power, now only able to cling to the priest, to cling to Christ. Her eyes move from him to me to him again. Her frustration is showing, her mouth moving, her teeth shining white. Gasps come from her exhausted lungs. Fr. Morrow takes her hand again. He closes his eyes, and begins: Our Father, who art in heaven. Her eyes stop moving. Her mouth stops its feeble attempt to speak. She has heard the words she wanted to hear. And she finally has the strength to speak. There is no sound, but her mouth is saying the words. Thy Kingdom Come. She closes her eyes. She has found her song. Deliver us from evil. Fr. Morrow begins again. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Her movement ceases; nothing moving but her lips. No more gasps. Her eyes are closed. Her body is slowly releasing its tension. There is only the tremble of lips whispering the name of the Mother of God. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Fr. Morrow is intent, focused, fatherly.
Had I been able, perhaps I would have seen her soul join with Mary’s in heaven in praising Jesus. She mouthed the word, Amen, and she exhaled her last breath, reconciled, healed, and unable to speak -except for those prayers she first learned as a little girl some 90 years ago, perhaps from her own grandmother. I leave you peace. My peace I give you. Left in the hands of the priest.
Fr. Morrow sighed, and we left the room. “Let’s go see the new mamas,” he said, smiling with unquenchable hope. There is new life to welcome into this world.