My mother returned to the Lord just months before I entered Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in August 2005. She had fought a long battle with a physically debilitating disease and succumbed to an infection the previous May. Both my brother and I were given the grace to be there by her bed as she took her last breath, an image now burned into my mind. Perhaps because of the decision I had finally made to enter seminary or perhaps just because I was a little older, her passing and the funeral events that transpired after were occasions of great grace for me—moments I can still recall perfectly and in which I can still experience the love of God, who was closer to me then than at any other time in my life.
My father had passed away some eleven years earlier. His death was sudden, and coming as it did in my last year of high school, the shock value was infinitely more traumatic, and I cannot say that I recall the event as a grace-filled encounter with God, though I trust that even those memories will in time and with circumstance be purified.
One of the many goals of summer assignments for seminarians is to gain experience with difficult aspects of parish ministry. Seminarians generally accumulate ample liturgical experience over their time in formation, but other aspects of parish life can be unique and new—and quite challenging. Some parish ministries can be complicated (or aided) by the seminarian’s personal life experiences, and their particular pasts help to identify those areas where focused attention is due.
In my formation up to this point, I have had limited exposure to hospital ministry and to ministry with folks who are in nursing homes and other such facilities. The pastor of my summer parish quickly resolved to remedy that situation. When visiting the sick, I carry the memory of the deaths of my parents and the sad fact that both of them died in hospitals: something neither of them wanted. Many of us pray for a happy death that does not include passing our final moments in the cold sterility of an institutional setting, but the Lord often has other ideas.
When the pastor, Fr. Greg, asked me to accompany him to visit an aged parishioner at a local nursing home, I jumped at the opportunity. But, as we parked at the nursing home, my memories and even fears swept over me. I experienced a sort-of internal revulsion to the very idea of nursing homes—a feeling shared by many people. It is probably caused by a combination of various factors: the desperate hope that we ourselves will not end our days in such a place, but also that we are encountering death—that final moment of life when our lives will be seen and judged for what they truly were.
As we walked through the hall on the way to the room, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. It was a mix of sorrow for my own parents, a powerfully-triggered memory of my mother’s last days, and an encounter with my own mortality. Needless to say, as we walked into the room, I was not in the best of mindsets.
But then I witnessed an amazing priest and how the Holy Spirit moves. I’m not sure I have ever seen anyone with better bedside manner than Fr. Greg. He interacted with the woman we were visiting just like I did with my Mom when she was in the hospital. He was so natural and caring, and she was so very loving and appreciative. Plus, she was particularly happy to see me—she was thrilled that I was a seminarian and was extremely pleased that I had come to see her.
To add to the experience, the woman we were visiting looked a little like my Mom. And she spoke a little like my Mom. And before it was all over, I knew the Holy Spirit was trying to tell me something: “Josh, this woman is your mother in Christ. Don’t be afraid. Treat her like your mother. That is all I would ever expect of you.”
Fr. Greg truly became Jesus in that hospital room. He wasn’t gloomy or apocalyptic or condescendingly sympathetic. He was just a normal guy, talking to a woman who had been one of his flock for years, who had, as we all are bound to do, grown older and was now in need of a different kind of care. He acted just like I did when I visited my Mom in the hospital so many times as she was getting closer to dying.
As we were leaving, I was in a daze. I hadn’t really said anything during the visit except a short and cordial greeting. I said that it was my pleasure to meet her and that I would love to come and visit again if she wouldn’t mind. Then the Holy Spirit closed the deal: I have never in my life seen a smile like that wonderful lady produced. The light of Christ simply glowed from her face, and I knew two things: first, that this woman, who looked and sounded like my Mom, was allowing the Holy Spirit to speak through her and to reassure me that I will be just fine in hospitals as a priest one day, and also to tell me that the most important thing I can do in my ministry to the sick is simply to be with them, just like Jesus. Ultimately, such a strategy addresses the nature of the gloom that surrounds nursing facilities which I felt so powerfully when I arrived: everyone seems so alone.
But this magnificent woman had the light of Christ, and she was not afraid to share it. I thought I was going to the hospital to minister to this woman. It turns out, I was being visited, not visiting. Thanks be to God.