By Eddie O’Neill
When Father Dan Farley, a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Army’s chaplaincy program, felt discomfort in his right leg in 2005, he didn’t think much of it. He had recently been dealing with bone spurs in his foot and reasoned that it might be related to that.
He was given shoe inserts to help, but the problem did not go away. The next diagnosis from the doctors was that he was suffering from a compressed nerve in his back. Father Farley worked with a chiropractor and was given a set of daily exercises to do. Still, no results.
While he struggled with some pain, the 52-year-old priest was not worried. Such bumps and bruises came with the territory, he thought. That is, until November 2008.
Father Farley was back in Afghanistan administering to the troops when maneuvering with his equipment became very difficult.
“My foot kept just flopping to the side,” Father Farley told Our Sunday Visitor. “I couldn’t run down the mountain. Now I knew something was much more serious, so I went back to the physical therapy people at our primary base in Jalalabad and asked them to check it out. They determined, too, that something was more serious here.”
He eventually ended up at the Army’s base in Landstuhl, Germany, for more medical tests. Then the neurologist gave him the hard-hitting news.
He suspected that it was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“Even when he gave me the diagnosis and told me how serious it was, I shared with him that I wasn’t surprised, because I always believed that I would die at a younger age,” he said. “I have always known it. I can’t tell you why, but there was a peace with that news.”
ALS is an incurable, fatal neuromuscular disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness that eventually results in paralysis. ALS is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Gehrig, a Hall of Fame first baseman for the New York Yankees, brought national and international attention to the disease in 1939 as he abruptly retired from baseball after being diagnosed with ALS.
After a number of months of staying at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Father Farley returned home to his parish of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Portage County, Wis., in June 2009. His parishioners were overjoyed to see him.
“When I came back walking, [my return] was much more upbeat than they thought,” he said. “People would often mention to me that they knew someone with ALS and how horrible the disease was and how fast they went. So they still see me walking around, and it is not so bad then.”
Father Farley’s prayer is twofold these days. First, he says that he prays for the healing grace that he needs and desires. Second, the rural pastor has offered himself to God that if this is the path that has been chosen for him to accomplish his work then he asks for the grace to be faithful.
He says that he is not alone, but rather feels very close to the Lord. He describes experiencing a special grace while receiving a blessing from Pope John Paul II many years ago in Rome.
“There was a closeness that I experienced. I immediately took my little notepad out and wrote about it. That is the closeness that remains with me,” he said. “There is just awareness that I am not alone, an awareness of the presence of Christ.”
Father Farley noted that, with this diagnosis, he has received an additional assignment from God: to let people know how much God loves them and desires his intimate union with them.
In his many years as a priest, the pastor has seen his fair share of suffering. However, his view of suffering has not changed since he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. In fact, he says, suffering has long been a companion of his. His counsel for those suffering with an illness such as his own is: Be not afraid.
“Live in the moment and trust God is at work,” he said. “Welcome others into your journey, and commit yourself to being a person of prayer. Be open to the gifts he wishes to bestow, and rest in his peace.”
Describing his own spiritual life, Father Farley says his favorite prayer these days is simply sitting in silence and reflection upon the words of Christ: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; not as I will but as you will.” He adds that he hopes to be open and ready to whatever God asks of him.
While Father Farley has participated in a number of test studies related to ALS, his prognosis remains the same.
“It can best be summed up by the neurologist at [the University of Wisconsin in] Madison,” he said. “Several months ago, he told me that there is nothing more that medical science can do for me.”
According to the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins University, the average lifespan for a person diagnosed with ALS is three to five years. However, Father Farley shows no fear in the face of death.
“I learned a long time ago, as I walked along some very dangerous streets and circumstances in East Los Angeles, that my life could be cut short,” he said. “I was at peace with that, for I was convinced that the work that I was doing was the work that God had asked of me.”
Father Farley is aware that his days as an active priest are coming to an end. A new rectory is being built in the woods near his parish church that will serve as his final home. He says he looks forward to setting aside the busyness of life and focusing on contemplation and prayer. His focus these days is doing what God is asking of him and continually developing that union with him.
“I trust that the one who has been calling me by name will bring the journey to completion that he began within me so long ago,” he said. “While my body is weakening, my spirit remains strong.”
Eddie O’Neill writes from Wisconsin.
“With the annual World Day of the Sick, the Church intends to carry out a far-reaching operation, raising the ecclesial community’s awareness to the importance of pastoral service in the vast world of health care. This service is an integral part of the Church’s role since it is engraved in Christ’s saving mission itself. He, the divine Doctor, ‘went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil’ (Acts 10:38).”
“Jesus exhorts us to bend over the physical and mental wounds of many of our brothers and sisters whom we meet on the highways of the world. He helps us to understand that with God’s grace accepted and lived out in our daily life, the experience of sickness and suffering can become a school of hope.”
“And I am anxious to add that at this moment in history and culture we are feeling even more acutely the need for an attentive and far-reaching ecclesial presence beside the sick, as well as a presence in society that can effectively pass on the Gospel values that safeguard human life in all its phases, from its conception to its natural end.”
“In this Year for Priests, my thoughts turn in particular to you, dear priests, ‘ministers of the sick,’ signs and instruments of Christ’s compassion who must reach out to every person marked by suffering. I ask you dear presbyters, to spare no effort in giving them care and comfort.”