Tuesday, July 04, 2006

'What a priest does,' Nth Episode...

About an hour ago, just as I was writing a response to a comment about my Sunday homily, the phone rang.

Alas, many times during the day, the phone ringing means either someone calling for a business that used to have this number; and, I've discovered, so it is still listed on the Internet, spawning consternated disagreement ("but--this is supposed to be _____!" "Well, you'll just have to take my word for it, it's not!"), or some sort of solicitation, which irks me because I don't want simply to hang up, and it is hard to interrupt someone in his or her spiel, and when I'm working on a homily, let's say, that 2-minute phone call can be a real disruption in my train of thought. Well, more and more, if I really want some peace and quiet at home, I turn off the ringer, and let the machine pick up; and either call back, or pick up once I hear who it is.

Well, in this case I wasn't doing anything thoughty, so I picked up the phone.

It was a nursing home nearby; a woman was "actively dying."

I was dressed casually, so I said it would take a few minutes to change into clerical attire, and I drove straight there.

As such moments go, it was a strong expression of faith: family gathered around, they clearly were attuned to prayer (so many times those gathered clearly aren't practicing the faith). They were open about their mom dying, so that helped: I could openly acknowledge that reality in our conversation and prayer, for the sake, first, of the one dying! and second, for those gathered, to name and confront the reality, rather than hedge around it. So it seems to me, anyway. But sometimes folks aren't ready for that, and it's not my place to force someone to deal with that; so unless someone there acknowledges--"____ is dying, as a rule, I do not "go there" in what I say; at most, I gingerly try to elicit that acknowledgement, before I offer to pray "prayers for the dying." This may seem all rather fussy; but this is an extremely delicate moment for folks; and as sorry as I am, I don't feel it as they do--this is their mother or father!

Also, one of the challenges of this is--how much time do I have? In this case, when I felt the woman's hand, it felt cold; I spoke to her, I didn't see movement; I waited...then I saw her breathe. While I don't over-worry about this, we don't administer sacraments to the dead.

So, I led the woman through the sacrament of confession: "tell the Lord in your heart what you are sorry for...now we'll pray an act of contrition together...your penance is a Glory Be, let's say that together...now I'll give you absolution..."; then the Apostolic Pardon, which is a remission from all temporal punishment--i.e., a plenary indulgence; then, anointing; then, if possible, communion; in this case, not possible (turns out, she received the Eucharist on Sunday, Deo gratias!). Then, a litany of the saints, and commendation of the dying, then any prayers the family wishes -- in this case, a Hail Mary and an Our Father (that was my goof; I should have led that before the anointing; but if one does anointing, with communion, it comes after the anointing, and I just forgot).

As we were finishing, another priest--one of the retired priests who lives here in Piqua--walked in; someone else had called him. Then we talked a little about "arrangements"--they had another priest in mind, no problem: they were welcome to contact me if needed.

All that in about an hour. The rest of the day, I'll keep that woman and her family in my prayers, in the likely but not certain event that the Lord will call her to himself sometime today, or tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Father for the gentle, respectful way you approach the dying and their loved ones.
Having worked in nursing homes, I have seen many expressions of deep faith in the resurrection as well as families that are under great duress without faith.
Gentleness and love win hearts for Christ.
Keep planting the seed!
Karen : )

Anonymous said...

Is the dying person not required to confess their sins out loud? Is it because the family members are gathered around? If the person is able can they make a normal confession? Please forgive me if I misunderstood the post.
Love the blog, Father. We need more priests like you!

Fr Martin Fox said...

Just me:

No, certainly not "required," for several reasons: first, because one might not be private, as you say; or, because the person may not be capable of communicating.

One time I heard a confession in a prison, in one of those booths, where the prisoner faced me across a table. Alas, I had to presume the guards were listening in, and I could not lean over to have him whisper; so I told him to speak his sins silently to God.

I have no idea if the woman even heard me; or, if she did, if she truly felt sorry for her sins (if she had any unconfessed); for all I know, she had no true "need": she may not have had any mortal sins, and she was sorry for her any venial sins. My role was to give her every advantage: if she was able to hear and respond, and if she did, then the sacrament was "effective" for her . . .

Keep in mind, no one truly "has" to have this sacrament: i.e., we do not believe God won't forgive, apart from the sacrament. But since she was a Catholic, this gave her reason for peace of mind -- and that, too, for the family.

Tracy said...

What a beautiful passing...your presence and the Sacraments were surely a blessing to everyone there. This brought a teat to my eye.

God Bless you for all you do,

Tracy said...

Ummm, yeah, that would be a TEAR in my eye, NOT teat! Geez!

It's been a long week!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Father. This gives me peace, as I am always scared a priest will not be available on my death bed! I have asked Jesus in prayer to please let me die in the state of grace. I try to go to confession frequently, but still, it would be so nice to have a priest by my bedside, praying just like you prayed with that woman. I think of my death as an ocassion for joy; it is the day I will see Him face to face! (even if I will have to spend a long time in purgatory after...) I would sure want a priest to come and speak the truth, celebrate with me and comfort the ones that stay.
Thank you for running to that woman's bedsite and administering the sacraments so beautifully and faithfully.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the insight. My prayers are with you.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Martin: Your behavior seemed so appropriate and sensitive. Being at the bedside of a dying person is so hard. You have to be sensitive to the needs of the family, be tuned in to your role, and not be overwhelmed by natural fear or discomfort. I most remember the times that I let my own emotions get in the way...those are the hard ones to forget, because you are right: the families loss is primary.

Just the way you describe this scene tells me that you are a good pastor.