During my many years as hospital chaplain in various hospitals, I have experienced many uplifting and encouraging situations that make me love my ministry as hospital chaplain all the more. When people express with exuberant joy: “Gee Father, I feel better already,” after receiving the Anointing for Healing, or they say, “Father, you really made my day today,” after receiving holy Communion, I can’t help but feel very privileged to be involved in their joy and happiness. People of faith in the hospital find it very easy to express great appreciation for the presence of a priest in the hospital.
Years ago, during one of my hospital visits, I went to see a woman who was told by her doctor that she must abort her four-month old baby because, if she didn’t, she and her baby would both die. Now this was a woman of great faith who believed that it was always wrong to abort and kill a child. She was very upset with the direction her doctor had given her and asked me what she should tell him. Of course I told her that she should tell him to do everything in his power to save both her life and the life of her baby and that abortion was completely out of the question. She told him that and, as a consequence, she gave birth to a very healthy baby, and both she and her baby went on to live.
God Is Always in Charge
This situation only confirmed for me even more strongly that God is always in charge and that we should never hesitate to tell people, even those caught in very tough situations, that they should place their full trust in God, no matter what other professionals tell them.
On another occasion, I went in to visit a man who had been diagnosed with a large tumor on the left side of his stomach. He was scheduled to go into surgery the following day so he called me and asked me to give him the Anointing for Healing. I gave him the sacrament and prayed with him. The following day, before he went into surgery, the doctors took more x-rays just to make sure exactly where the tumor was. Upon further examination, they found that the tumor had completely disappeared.
‘Father, what did you do to that man?’
The doctor came running to me and asked, “Father, what did you do to that man?” as though I was the one responsible for the tumor disappearing. This was a non-Catholic doctor and so I explain to him that I had simply prayed that God would heal the patient, and that is what He did. It was He who had removed the tumor, not I. All I did was to administer the sacrament. Then I went on to explain to him briefly that we Catholics believe in the power of the sacraments, and that we have experienced that power. He just shook his head and walked away in disbelief.
Though I had previously seen many people healed by the power of the sacrament, I must say that this for me was one of the most visible proofs of the power of that sacrament. When that man first entered the hospital, the doctors took x-rays that revealed a large tumor, but now after the patient had been given the Sacrament of the Sick, the tumor was gone. How else can you explain that? Even the doctors had no explanation.
On another occasion, I encountered a situation that was even more powerful than the two previous ones. A middle-aged man was admitted into the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit of a hospital where I was chaplain. When I entered his room, I found him sitting on a chair, something a little unusual for a cardiac patient in an ICU.
This patient had had a major heart surgery 10 years previously and had survived that operation very well. But now he had been readmitted into the hospital just to make sure that nothing serious was going on, as he had been experiencing a bit of chest pain. But he did assure me that the doctors found nothing to worry about and that he would be discharged later on that afternoon.
A Dismissed Invitation
I asked him if he would like to receive Communion before going home. Instead of simply saying “No,” as most patients who do not want to receive would, he dismissed my invitation to receive the Lord in such a cavalier manner, telling me that even though he had been brought up very Catholic — altar boy and all that — he no longer received Communion. He laughed while he was telling me this, but then caught himself and apologized for his laughter after he realized that what he was telling me was not amusing me in the least.
I asked him, “Don’t you feel that you owe God something for the healing that He gave you after your former serious surgery?” That question didn’t seem to touch him in the least. Anyway, I told him to think it over and that if he changed his mind and wanted to contact me, I was on call and that I would be happy to come back to visit him.
His cynical response to my offering him Communion disturbed me very much. I had never heard that kind of response before from any patient who did not want to receive Communion.
That night, Tuesday, after I got home, I went into our chapel and prayed that God would tap my friend on the shoulder, and that if he didn’t respond, He would give him a shove to help him to realize how much he owed God for all that He had done for him in the past.
In the hospital, on that same night, Tuesday, maybe at the same time I was praying in the chapel, my friend’s heart went into arrest and stopped beating completely. The doctors had to use the paddles on him to get his heart beating again. He was then put on a respirator and several other kinds of machines.
Two days later, Thursday, I went back to visit my friend, not knowing what had happened to him on the previous Tuesday. I found him flat on his back, tied up with all kinds of tubes and machines. I couldn’t believe it. I approached him and called his name. He opened his eyes but could not speak.
‘Don’t worry, friend. God loves you.’
I told him, “Don’t worry, friend. God loves you. You went through a bit of a setback the other night, but you’ll be OK. Remember what we were talking about a couple of days ago. God is just trying to get in touch with you. He loves you, and you are going to be OK.”
Now I don’t know how I could have assured him with such conviction that he was going to be OK. The words just came out of my mouth. I just had a gut feeling that all was going to turn out all right. Anyway my friend blinked his eyes as though to tell me that he understood all that I was saying.
Two days later, Saturday, I went back to visit him again. He was completely out of it, with no eyes blinking or anything. I said a prayer and left him alone. Then, as I was going to be away from the hospital for a week, I asked the other chaplain, who would be covering the hospital, to keep an eye on my friend.
Four days later, Wednesday, I called the chaplain to find out how my friend was doing. He was still flat out on his back, tubes all over the place, no response and no change. That night, Wednesday, I went back into the chapel and asked the Lord to heal my friend.
I reminded Him that I had only asked Him to tap my friend on the shoulder or to shove him a bit, but I hadn’t asked Him to kill him. I wanted Him to do for my friend what He had done so often for me in the past: wake me up to realize how much He loved me and how much I owed Him. I pleaded again with the Lord that He heal my friend so as to give him a chance to repent, confess and receive Him in holy Communion again.
Never hesitate to pray to God to tap a patient
That night I had spoken to some of my priest confreres at the house about this case. They asked, “Aren’t you sorry you asked God to tap your friend on the shoulder? Don’t you feel guilty for the way he’s turning out?” I said, “Of course not. I asked God to tap him on the shoulder and that is what He did. It was a gift I was asking the Lord to give my friend, and it was up to Him to do that His way.”
The next day, Thursday, I got a call from the chaplain telling me that my friend was sitting up in a chair, no longer in the Intensive Care Unit and ready to be released later that evening, and that he had asked to receive Communion before going home. What a delightful surprise! I couldn’t believe it. God certainly tapped and shoved my friend in a very compassionate way.
That evening, before he was discharged, I called my friend and had a nice conversation with him. His first remark to me was, “What a miracle!” And I have to agree with him. That was not the way things normally turn out after a patient has gone into cardiac arrest and then been unconscious for over a week. I reminded my friend of how good God is, even to us who do not always deserve it, and how much we owe Him all the time. He thanked me for that.
What a wonderful experience! No wonder I love being a hospital chaplain. Who would not want to be involved in such situations! The lesson here is that we should never hesitate to ask God to do good things for others no matter how impossible they look, even if it means asking Him to tap them on the shoulder or even to give them a shove to make them realize how much He loves them and how much they owe Him.
After that case shook me up so much, another case that happened shortly after my ordination came back to mind. I was called to see a patient in another hospital. The nurse warned me that the patient was seriously ill with a serious heart problem, but that he did not seem to realize that at all. I offered the patient the Sacrament of the Sick but he refused it. He said he was not really sick and did not need any prayers.
I did not know enough at that time, shortly after my ordination and with so little experience as a priest, how to pray to God to tap patients on the shoulder or give them a good shove. The patient died that night. Since then I have learned never to hesitate to pray that God tap patients on the shoulder or shove them. TP
Father Bourgea, S.M., ordained in 1959, is a member of the Marist Fathers. He spent 29 years as a missionary in Papua, New Guinea, and Fiji.