Two or three times a month each parish on the east side of Rochester is on call at Rochester General Hospital. Eight in the morning to 8 the next morning; we respond to any calls for the Anointing of the Sick or the Sacrament of Confession. Sometimes I forget I’m on call. This was one of those nights. . . .
So it was Sunday night about 9:15. I’d just settled in to watch the closing ceremonies for the Rio Olympics. The chaplain at Rochester General calls to ask for an anointing. A woman, 93, in a coma . . . her son was asking for a priest. So you go right? Of course. It’s what we do.
On the way I try to spiritualize my frustration at missing the Olympics. “Lord, this is for you. I offer this up. Let this bring me closer to you and your Sacred Heart.” I silently patted myself on the back for responding quickly and calmly to the chaplain’s request. “I’m a dutiful priest”, I tell myself.
Her name was Ruth. She was curled up in a semi-fetal position. With eyes closed, her head was tilted back as if expecting a knock at the window. Tom, her son, greeted me with a kindly smile and extended his hand.
He told me his mother had come to the hospital with a lung infection but I soon learned this was simply the last in a litany of health problems that went back decades; back to when Tom and his sister were told their mother had Alzheimers and special care would be needed for her 24/7.
For 22 years they watched their mother’s growing dementia as Tom cared for her in his home. It had been years since Ruth even recognized him as her son.
“We just wanted to be ready Father. She’s been through so much.” Briefly he fills me in on what the recent past had been and the numerous trips to emergency rooms. I was struck by the tender way he spoke of his mother and the total absence of any reference to what these years had cost him and his sister.
(It set me thinking of my sisters who each cared for our mom and dad in their final days. Like little children, our sickly parents needed constant care and attention which both of my sisters gave so readily.)
And here he was, bent over his mother’s bed stroking her hair. I wondered if I was kind enough, generous enough, selfless enough, to do what this man had done for so many years for his demented mother.
Suddenly my frustration over missing the Olympic closing seemed so small and petty. My prayer of “offering up” seemed less heroic, and my secret estimate of myself suddenly paled when compared to Tom’s undivided devotion.
So what’s my point? We’ve all been witness in our priest- hood to persons of great charity and holiness. For me, the people I hold to be in the state of great sanctity (who knows these things?) . . . most are simple everyday people . . . few are priests. The point is we priests have it pretty easy. The great love of God’s people for the priest paves the way for a smooth landing in so many life situations.
Most people do the hard, thankless, every day carrying of their burden with no fanfare. We priests hear “thank you Father” almost daily. Most people get gifts on their birthday; we often get little candies on our desk “for just being you”. Most people pay for their meal; how many times has someone across the restaurant picked Father’s check up? Their moods don’t get pampered like Father’s when he’s “having a bad day.”
So I guess I’m urging us priests to see ourselves as Jesus did, “It is the same with you; when you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are but servants; we have only done our duty.'” Lk. 17:10
We stand humbled by the hidden souls whose brilliant charity daily sow the seeds of God’s Kingdom.