Thursday, February 19, 2004

Pastoral Challenge

I was called to the hospital this evening to bless the body of a man who had just died of cancer. This was a man I had been working with for some time to prepare him for his death. He had been anointed just a few days before. His case was a real challenge for me. In almost five years of priesthood I have been called to several bedsides; that was not new. Unique, however, was the fact that this was the first time I knew for certain that the person I was going to visit (a) had not practiced the Faith in years; and, (b) was in an invalid marriage that would have precluded full participation in the Faith, had he even been attempting to practice. And the dilemma was not chiefly what to do about Holy Communion (though that was certainly a question). Rather, this man wanted to learn more about the Sacraments before receiving any. He was literally clueless about what the word meant and what the Sacraments are. He was the son of Catholics and was apparently baptized, but that was all folks. Suddenly I had to attempt to teach the Sacraments to a man who wanted to learn, but whose attention span could not hold up long at all due to the morphine. I was worried. Though he expressed interest in receiving what Sacraments could be available to him, in our visits he would postpone reception saying, "Not now. Maybe later." Time was precisely what he did not have. So, I chose to simply assert that God sent his Son to save us. That Jesus is that Son. That Jesus promised his apostles and disciples, the early Church, that he would not abandon them. The Sacraments are ways the Lord remains present to us and his saving work active in our souls. I pointed out three Scriptural passages I use to explain the "logic" of the Sacraments: (1) Numbers 21:4-9: Moses intercedes to save the people from the seraph serpents. God instructs him to make a serpent that the people may look at to be saved. The bronze serpent Moses makes is an outward, visible, sign that God's saving action is working amongst the people; (2) Mark 7:31-37: The ephphatha account when Jesus does very earthy, ordinary things such as putting his fingers in the deaf man's ears, touching his mute tongue, and spitting to heal him; and, (3) John 9:1-7: Jesus heals the man born blind by making clay with his spittle and anointing the man's eyes. In these examples, I told the man, God and Jesus didn't have to use outward signs to work in the people's lives. He could have, as so many other Scripture passages note, simply willed that someone be healed. He could have simply spoken a creative word, with little more interaction with the person than that. But Scripture shows God has also chosen to operate in ways that respond to our need for sensible signs. And that way of working is what we mean by a Sacrament. I then read a couple of passages that touched upon the Sacraments I hoped he would receive, regarding forgiveness of sins and the anointing of those who were ill. It was a real challenge. Eventually, after being moved to the hospital a week ago, he agreed to be anointed. The pastor was able to fulfill that for him (I myself was sick at the time). What a mystery the end of life is! Who knows how much the man retained from my rapid fire Baltimore Catechism sessions? How many lost years were we able to make up for in the brief time we had together? Does that even matter? I suppose simply that the man came to SOME faith, itself a source of grace, was augmented by the one Sacrament he was finally able to receive. May God have mercy on his soul. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord!

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